Mockingjay Discussion 26: Getting to the Ballad Roots of “The Hanging Tree”

Last week, in Mockingjay Discussion 15: The Hanging Tree, we covered some of the fascinating symbolic possibilities for the haunting song Katniss sings to Pollux, primarily to distract the mockingjays from singing Rue’s four-note tune, but which echoes throughout the novel.   “The Hanging Tree” also connects to real ballad types and actual ballads. Understanding the different types of ballads and where “The Hanging Tree” fits can add to our understanding of the way Collins uses music in general and this evocative piece in particular.

  If you’ll forgive my slipping into Appalachian Culture teaching mode, ballads (which are narrative, with characters and a plot, not just slow songs; that misconception gives us the mistaken term “power ballad” for any slow rock song) fall into three main categories:

  1. Literary, which have authors and are written as intentional artistic works (“Ode to Billie Joe,” “Ballad of the Green Berets, ” “Copperhead Road,”  etc.)
  2. Broadside, based on actual local scandals, though with plenty of elaboration (“Tom Dooley,” “Little Omie Wise”)
  3. Folk, or popular ballads, ancient songs that have no identifiable author, have morphed over time, include figures like knights, ladies, gypsy lovers, and highwaymen, and revolve around the themes of love and death.

The Hanging Tree, of course, to Katniss, is a folk ballad. The real folk ballad it echoes most strongly is probably “The Hangman’s Tree,” in which the speaker, a woman, interestingly enough, stands at the gallows asking each friend and family member who rides up if that person is there to pay her debt and get her pardoned or to see her “hanging from the gallows tree.” After running through all her relations, finally, her true love is there to save her, not to watch her die. It’s a particularly old song with complex origins and variations. This one was recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and was on my parents’ LP, which I loved listening to when I was a kid. So, like Katniss, I went around singing songs about a hanging. It’s not that odd, really. Many of the lullabies I’ve sung my own children are ballads of death, ghosts, and love affairs. The pediatrician has assured me this will not turn either of them into serial killers. In fact, it may warn them out of trouble(see this amusing website for just that idea). Demon lovers who return from Hell to lure their old girlfriends away from home, hearth, and husband (and kids) also figure prominently, so a hanged man crooning to his girl to join him fits right in.

“The Hanging Tree” also strongly resembles a broadside, and not just because broadsides are often narrated by the convicted murderer shortly before he gets a short rope and sudden drop. Obviously, they weren’t written by the actual individuals. “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” a local (for me) song based on the very real case of the first woman hanged by the state of NC (1833), makes her give a powerful gallows speech, though eyewitnesses and court records aver that Frankie went to her death silently. Hanging is a big theme in Appalachian ballads, with Tom Dula (Dooley) being one of the better known ballad characters to end up on the end of a rope, and broadsides are often tabloid reports of murder, rape, adultery, and other unsavory events (Dula was convicted of murder, but he and most everyone else in the story also had syphilis from their tangled sex lives with one another. Yuck.) Though based on true events, the broadsides often bring in the supernatural, like dead people talking. Also, broadsides would be altered with a few name changes or other location switches to make them fit shocking crimes in other communities. Thus, the poor “Knoxville Girl” has been throttled, stabbed, and drowned all over the continental US and parts of Europe.

 However, our so-called murderer is never identified or placed in the context of real events, so that makes the song a District 12 folk ballad. Broadsides sometimes evolve into folk ballads (“Pretty Polly” started out based on a real murder, but has long since transformed into a folk ballad). 

The possible political connotations of the song tie it in with rebellion songs like “By the Risin’ O’ The Moon,” too.

Even though it’s a folk ballad in the context of the story, the fact that Collins wrote it for her book makes it a literary ballad. She could have used a real ballad, but she would not be the first author to instead create the song she needs. In her wonderful novel Songcatcher (no relation at all to the movie of the same name), Sharyn McCrumb traces the journey of a song through a family, using a song she and Shelley Stevens created: “The Rowan Stave.”  It’s a dead ringer for an actual folk ballad.

It really would be interesting to know Collins’s process in shaping “The Hanging Tree”; if, as I suspect, she has roots in Appalachia, she may be drawing from those. Or maybe she just had a really good class in Appalachian Culture or music history!


  1. Thanks for this extra information about Appalachian songs. It has been fascinating to read all the extras you bring to the table about the Appalachian culture, something that I am woefully ignorant about.

    I would love to hear any ideas you had for some meaningful discussion starters and extra teaching points for middle schoolers who tackle this book. I have some ideas but I am not a teacher so would be interested in your input. I read your starters for your college students and I would like to do something similar for my son once I let him read the book. Perhaps I could use those as a starting place as my son often surprises me in his insight and I don’t want to “dumb” things down too much. What do you think?

  2. Thanks, Lynn! It’s really a treat to be able to share the culture I love, just as I share books I love with my classes. I imagine that the questions would be equally appropriate for middle schoolers or older readers. One of my classes is entirely made up of dual-enrolled high schoolers (16-17 years old) and their reactions differ some from those of my older studnets in the other sections, but they can all start in the same place. What I love is that they are in the same age range as the Tributes. I even have a student who gave me a start the first day, as she fits exactly the way I had imagined Foxface!
    I imagine your son is an advanced reader who would find the questions useful, and I hope, come up with some more that I can use !
    Let us all know how it goes!

  3. When authors make up songs for their novels, I die a little inside trying to figure out the tune. In my head, The Hanging Tree is set to the tune of Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier, which I think is appropriate as it is an American Revolution tune. Another rebellion ballad tie-in.

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