STOKES COUNTY, N.C. – When Charlie Lawson murdered his family on Christmas Day, 1929 word of the tragedy traveled fast.
The events made headlines in newspapers across the country and inspired a young North Carolina singer-songwriter named Walter “Kid” Smith to pen the “Ballad of the Lawson Family Murder.”
“I assume he wrote it because he thought it would be something people would be interested in hearing on a record,” said music historian Kinney Rorrer. “The murder happened at Christmas, and he wrote the song in March.”
Murder ballads were popular during the time.
“Kid Smith had written the song, and they contacted the Columbia people in New York, and when they heard the lyrics, they said they would be glad to record it if they bring three more songs,” said local musician Keith Hiatt, who grew up with the song and knew some of Smith’s musical friends, known as the Carolina Buddies, who would help with the recording. “I heard some of my relatives used to sing it. We would be playing music around the house, around the tobacco barn, and I could hear people sing it.”
“The Carolina Buddies was Posey Rorer on fiddle, Buster Carter from Mayodan on Banjo, Lewis McDaniel on guitar and then Kid Smith was the vocalist,” Rorrer said.
The song became a hit in the genre that would become country music.
“The murder of the Lawson Family was one of Columbia records best selling hillbilly records from 1930,” Rorrer said. “It sold over 8,000 copies. And by that time, most hillbilly records were in the thousand to two thousand range. And for that one to sell 8,000, that was a really good seller.”
Rorrer interviewed Kid Smith about the song and in doing so uncovered what many believe is the reason Charlie Lawson killed his family.
“When I went to see Kid Smith, he said ‘I was talking to a guy in Winston-Salem long about the time they made the record,’ and he said ‘it came to me straight. Charlie Lawson killed his family because his oldest daughter was pregnant and it drove him mad. It drove him crazy,'” Rorrer said.
Many credit the song about the murder of the Lawson family as playing a major role in keeping the story going for 90 years now.
“It was the records that kept the ballads alive and gave them an importance beyond what they might have had,” Rorrer said. “Certainly the longevity is based on the recorded ballad.”
This is part of FOX8’s series on the Lawson Family Murder.
For episode 2, click here.
For episode 1, click here.
Listen to the trailer for FOX8’s podcast, “Deadly Secrets: The Lawson Family Murder.”
Subscribe to “Deadly Secrets: The Lawson Family Murder”: