The Ballad of Booth

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The Ballad of Booth
Published 1990-12-18
Composer Stephen Sondheim
Genre Bluegrass, Show tune
Themes Narrative, Politics, Protest, Violence
Rating Rating-8.svg

The Ballad of Booth is a song from the musical Assassins written by Stephen Sondheim and first produced on 1990-12-18. In the song the Balladeer describes the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, gives several probable reasons for why, then, Booth states his actual reasons for murdering the president, but the Balladeer explains that the assassination, instead of rallying the South and stopping Lincoln's progress, only strengthened the abolitionists and made Lincoln a legend.

On the Original Cast Recording, the Ballader is played by Patrick Cassidy and Booth is played by Victor Garber. Booth's accomplice David Herold is played by Marcus Olson, the announcer and police officer aren't directly credited.

The song gets a couple things wrong. Booth didn't kill himself, but was shot by the posse who tracked him down and died from the gunshot. Booth was actually only 26 when he died, though he was only a couple weeks away from his birthday. The use of calling him 27 was probably to make the lyrics fit the melody better.


When I first heard about the musical Assassins I was a bit apprehensive because I didn't like the idea of glamorizing murderers. However, when I saw this song performed, it allowed me to see the tone of musical. It both humanizes the Booth, allows him to state his case, but ultimately condemns him, and exposes his failure at the same time. After listening to the soundtrack several times, this became my favorite of the musical.

I love the use of the banjo and harmonica which really give the song a traditional typical Americana sound; the trumpet and fiddle also help. I also really love how Booth composes himself well through the song, but, when he loses his composer, he turns violent an racist, revealing the inner monster.


Ladies and Gentlemen,
The president of the United States:
Abraham Lincoln.

Sic semper tyrannis,
Sic semper tyrannis,
Sic semper tyrannis,
Sic semper tyrannis,
Sic semper tyrannis,
Sic semper tyrannis.

Someone tell the story,
Someone sing the song.

Every now and then,
The country,
Goes a little wrong.

Every now and then,
A madman's,
Bound to come along.
Doesn't stop the story-
Story's pretty strong.
Doesn't change the song...

Johnny Booth was a handsome devil.
Got up in his rings and fancy silks.
Had him a temper but kept it level.
Everybody called him Wilkes.

Why did you do it, Johnny?
Nobody agrees.
You who had everything,
What made you bring,
A nation to its knees?

Some say it was your voice had gone,
Some say it was booze.
Some say you killed a country, John,
Because of bad reviews.

Johnny lived with a grace and glitter.
Kind of like the lives he lived on stage.
Died in a barn in pain and bitter,
Twenty-seven years of age.

Why did you do it, Johnny,
Throw it all away?
Why did you do it, boy,
Not just destroy,
The pride and joy,
Of Illinois,
But all the U.S.A.?

Your brother made you jealous, John,
You couldn't fill his shoes.
Was that the reason, tell us, John-
Along with bad reviews?


They're coming! they'll be here any minute-

I need your help.
I've got to write this and I can't hold the pen.

Johnny, they've found us!
We've got to get out of here!

Not till I finish this.


Have you seen these papers?
Do you know what they're calling me?!
A common cutthroat! A hired assassin!
This one says I'm mad!

We must have been mad to think that we could kill the president and get away with it!

We did get away with it!
He was a bloody tyrant and we brought him down!
And I will not have history think I did it for a bag of gold or in some kind of rabid fit!

Johnny we have to go!

No! I have to make my case!
And I need you to take it down!

We don't have time!

Take it down.

An indictment.
Of the former President of the United States,
Abraham Lincoln, who is herein charged,
With the following high crimes and misdemeanors.

They say you're ship was sinking, John...

That you did ruthlessly provoke a war between the States,
Which cost some six hundred thousand,
Of my countrymen their lives. Two:

You'd started missing cues...

That you did silence your critics in the North,
By hurling them into prison without benefit of charge or trial. Three-

They say it wasn't Lincoln, John.

Shut up! Three-

You'd merely had a slew of bad reviews!

I said shut up!

Booth! I have fifty soldiers out here Booth!
Give yourselves up or we'll set fire to the barn!

Don't shoot! I'm coming out!


I have given my life for one act, you understand?
Do not let history rob me of its meaning.
Pass on the truth! You're the only one who can.

He said,
"Damn you Lincoln,
You had your way-

Tell'em, boy!

With blood you drew out,
Of blue and gray!"

Tell it all!
Tell'em till they listen!

He said,
"Damn you, Lincoln,
And damn the day,
You threw the 'U' out,
Of U.S.A!"

He said:

Hunt me down, smear my name,
Say I did it for the fame.
What I did was kill the man who killed my country.
Now the Southland will mend,
Now this bloody war can end,
Because someone slew the tyrant,
Just as Brutus slew the tyrant.

He said:

(Balladeer, booth)
Damn you, Lincoln,
You righteous whore!

Tell'em what he did!

(Balladeer, booth)
You turned your spite into Civil War!

Tell'em the truth!

And more...

Tell'em, boy!
Tell them how it happened,

How the end doesn't mean that it's over,
How surrender is not the end!
Tell them:

How the country is not what it was,
Where there's blood in the clover.
How the nation can never again,
Be the hope that it was.

How the bruises may never be healed,
How the wounds are forever.
How we gave up the field,
But we still wouldn't yield,

How the union can never recover,
From that Vulgar,
High and mighty,

Never. Never. Never.
No, the country is not what it was...

Damn my soul if you must,
Let my body turn to dust,
Let it mingle with the ashes of the country.

Let them curse me to hell,
Leave it to history to tell:
What I did, I did well,
And I did it for my country.

Let them cry, "dirty traitor!"
They will understand it later.
The country is not what it was...

Johnny Booth was a headstrong fellow,
Even he believed the things he said.
Some called him noble, some said yellow.
What he was was off his head.

How could you do it, Johnny,
Calling it a cause?
You left a legacy,
Of butchery,
And treason we,
Took eagerly,
And thought you'd get applause.

But traitors just get jeers and boos,
Not visits to their graves.
While Lincoln, who got mixed reviews,
Because of you, John, now gets only raves.

Damn, you Johnny,
You paved the way,
For other madmen,
To make us pay.
Lots of madmen,
Have had their say,
But only for a day.

Listen to the stories.
Hear it in the songs.
Angry men,
Don't write the rules and,
Guns don't write the wrongs.

Hurts a while,
But soon the country's,
Back where it belongs,
And that's the truth.

Still and all,
Damn you Booth!



Original Cast Recording
Broadway Cast Recording
Sung by Patrick Cassidy and Victor Garber with orchestral accompaniment.