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Murder songs Vol. 1

A few months ago I posted the Louvain Brothers’ version of Knoxville Girl, in which the song’s protagonist kills his girlfriend. Ever since I have held on to the idea of starting a series of songs about murder. There are many obvious ones, but I hope to include a couple of lesser known murder ballads as well. I think the concept might also incorporate songs about death row inmates, for two reasons. Firstly, in the US, where almost all the songs on the subject are based, the death penalty is applied only to individuals who have been convicted of murder; secondly, capital punishment is, in my view, itself an act of murder. No dead men walking in the inaugural post though. Here we have the song with the most famous line about murder in pop, a murder song that became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a song about mental illness leading to the death of a child. Creepy and chilling.

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Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues.mp3
It is probably appropriate to begin the series with the song that features arguably  the most famous line about a murder in popular music: “I killed a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Now the narrator sits in the titular jail as he listens to a train running by outside. He imagines the passengers “eatin’ in a fancy dining car. They’re prob’ly drinkin’ coffee and smokin’ big cigars”. He is regretting his crime, but evidently not because it was evil (Cash wanted to come up with the worst possible motive for killing a man in Reno), but because he can’t be as free as those highly mobile folk on the train. Famously, Cash later played his groundbreaking concert in the prison he sang about, and from which the recording here comes from.

The song might feature in the Copy Borrow Steal series. Cash borrowed the title from a 1951 movie called Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, and the melody from Gordon Jenkins 1953 song Crescent City Blues. Jenkins later sued and was received a settlement amount from Cash.

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Pat Hare – I’m Gonna Kill My Baby.mp3
Sometimes fiction becomes fact. In 1954, blues guitarist Pat Hare (born Auburn Hare!) sang a song — a cover of a 1940s song by Dorothy Clayton —  in which he vowed to kill his woman: “Yes, I’m gonna murder my baby — yeah, I’m tellin’ the truth now —‘cause she don’t do nothin’ but cheat and lie.” Eight years later, Hare had just finished a stint as a guitarist in Muddy Waters’ group when he shot dead his girlfriend and a policeman in Minneapolis. Hare was convicted of the murder and died in jail in 1980 at the age of 49.

Hare is not the most famous music man to have killed. There are Sid Vicious and Phil Spector, and of course Charles Manson, who once co-wrote a Beach Boys b-side. And then there are all those rumours about Jerry Lee Lewis and the wives who widowed him, rumours which imply that the man’s self-proclaimed nickname might be read literally. Other musicians who killed include English producer Joe Meek (in a murder-suicide), Little Willie John (who sang the original of Fever), blues legend  Leadbelly (pre-fame, in 1918), Claudine Longet (whose shooting of skier Spider Sabich was ruled accidental) , drummer Jim Gordon (Derek & the Dominos, who killed his mother), rapper Cassidy (convicted of  involuntary manslaughter), western swing performer Spade Cooley (who kicked his wife to death, in front of their daughter!), two members of The Prisonaires (see The Originals Vol. 29), country singer Charles Lee Guy III , ska man Don Drummond, and blues singers Bukka White and Robert Pete Williams.

Apologies for the poor quality of the sound file, by the way.

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Violent Femmes – Country Death Song.mp3
The title of this song almost could provide the title for this series.  The set up here, apparently based on a true event in 1862, is a father’s murder of his daughter, by throwing her down a well. “I led her to a hole, a deep black well. I said: ‘make a wish, make sure and not tell and close your eyes, dear, and count to seven. You know your papa loves you; good children go to heaven.” Then he gives her gently push, never hearing the impact.  Ashamed of himself, he proceeds to hang himself in a barn. Unlike the narrators of the songs by Cash and Hare, the killer here has a fair excuse: he is mentally ill, and kills to protect his daughter from what he perceives to be the evils of this cruel world. The arrangement of this outstanding 1984 track illustrates the father’s descent into homicidal psychosis. Rarely has the banjo, played here by Tony Trischka, sounded so utterly menacing. And a clottish label executive wanted the song dropped because he didn’t like the banjo break (which he mistook for a piano).

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  1. shane
    March 9th, 2010 at 13:15 | #1

    love yer blog murder song suggestions “banks of the ohio” our livvie newton john “psycho” jack kittel and good ol stagger lee

  2. halfhearteddude
    March 9th, 2010 at 14:16 | #2

    Thank you Shane. I’m toying with the thought of doing special editions on both Banks and Stagger Lee, with different versions (appropriate especially for the latter, of which there are several alternative lyrics).

  3. Lisa
    March 9th, 2010 at 15:59 | #3

    My favorite is “Melody Motel” by Squeeze. It’s so boppy and catchy that I bought it off iTunes after I heard them sing it in concert. Then I listened to the lyrics and had a true WTF???? moment.

  4. March 11th, 2010 at 00:50 | #4

    Oh! Oh! Do Staggerlee next! I’ve been wondering if he was the good guy or the bad guy. c.f. – http://www.facebook.com/eliot.duhan?v=feed&story_fbid=315014596941

  5. March 11th, 2010 at 01:58 | #5

    How on earth did the Femmes get hooked up with Tony Trischka? There’s a story waiting to be told.

  6. Rhod
    March 11th, 2010 at 22:41 | #6

    This site just keeps getting more interesting

    Great work

    Rhod

  7. March 21st, 2010 at 13:22 | #7

    It’d be interesting to get The Green Green Grass of Home / The Mercy Seat in here as songs that focus on the capital punishment rather than the original crime. However a very large collection of songs fit under this heading, many of them essential.

  8. Alex D
    April 5th, 2013 at 05:25 | #8

    This is an old post, I hope you don’t mind, but “Dog Bumped” by Tim Barry is a decent little murder song with a small twist.

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