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Murder Songs Vol. 5

November 18th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In this instalment of Murder Songs, we look at three real-life characters, from the 1890s, 1930s and 1950s.

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Woody Guthrie – Pretty Boy Floyd (1940).mp3
Charles Arthur ‘Pretty Boy” Floyd was a real-life criminal who came a cropper at the hands of law enforcement officers in 1934, at the age of 30. Wikipedia tells his story in some detail, including murders he might have committed or not. His fame rested with his career as a bankrobber. Like his contemporary John Dillinger, Floyd was regarded as something of a Robin Hood, stealing from those that steal from the poor, and then giving back to the poor; a victim of circumstance rather than a perpetrator of greed. This is how Woody Guthrie regards Floyd. He credits Floyd with one killing (the chainsaw beating the gun), but never mind that, because he redistributed the wealth. Anyhow, society’s anger should not be directed at the likes of Floyd, but at the bankers. In the age of enthusiastic foreclosures, Guthrie’s conclusion rings true even today: “Yes, as through your life you roam, you won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.” So Floyd might have been involved in the killing of a couple of Feds and bootleggers, but, Guthrie suggests, that shouldn’t be held against him: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” The latter and their supporters are the bad guys here. Oh, to hear Guthrie sing about bail-outs and bonuses today…

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Long before Mickey and Mallory, there were these two...

Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982).mp3
Where Bruce killed a man in Wyoming just to see him die…  Here, Springsteen’s narrator is teenage serial killer Charles Starkweather. The story begins in 1958 as the narrator picks up his cheerleader girlfriend in his car (so far, so Bruce), and from here on in, “ten innocent people died”.  The girlfriend was 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate. The killing spree kicks off in Lincoln, Nebraska, “with a sawed-off .410 on my lap. Through to the badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path”. In real life, the first three victims were Fugate’s mother, stepfather and baby step-sister. The natural born killers are caught, and in the song, our friend isn’t really sorry, because it was all good fun. Now he is facing his execution (Caril Ann was jailed until 1976), and he isn’t in a mood for repentance. “They wanted to know why I did what I did. Well, Sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” Murder songs don’t come much more chilling than that.

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The hanging of John Hardy on 19 January 1894

Carter Family – John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man (1928).mp3
A traditional folk ballad, the tale of John Hardy has been told many times in various versions since it was first recorded in 1924. The version by the Carter Family may be the definitive one. The real story of John Hardy is quickly summarised: John Hardy kills one Thomas Drews in a gambling dispute in West Virginia in 1893, is arrested, tried, and sentenced to hang, as he did on 19 January 1894 before a crowd of 3000. The song imagines Hardy in his cell, now, as the title tells us, “a desperate little man”. The devil alcohol was to blame, as Hardy pronounced from the gallows. In fact, he was so drunk as to be oblivious to being arrested in a bar. Seems that Hardy has killed more than one person, but they all must have deserved it, because “my six-shooters never told a lie”. He gets visitors, from as girl in blue and a girl in red. The former stands by him, but the girl in red “said, ‘Johnny, I had rather see you dead’.” And, whether she is a metaphor or not, shortly she will get her wish.

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  1. November 18th, 2010 at 06:26 | #1

    Three great tunes, three great tales. Good calls on all of them! (“Nebraska” is exactly as you wrote: “chilling.”)

  2. HW
    November 18th, 2010 at 10:21 | #2

    I have a cracking version of Pretty Boy Floyd by Bob Dylan off the Tribute to Woody Guthrie & Leadbelly album – not sure how it compares to the original but I’ll definitely be grabbing all three of these. (Rock Island Line by Little Richard & Fishbone is another highlight off that album).

  3. Rhod
    November 19th, 2010 at 21:54 | #3

    Woody Guthrie have not heard alot of him in Aus but he adds such a human touch to the songs he performs

    Thanks

    Rhod

  4. Charles de Lint
    November 23rd, 2010 at 23:32 | #4

    Of course these days outlaws do take your home as in home invasions…

    Great write-ups on all three songs.

    cheers

    Charles

  5. Vaughn Abbott
    December 9th, 2010 at 14:26 | #5

    The Terrance Malick movie, BADLANDS, provided much of the visual imagery for Springsteen’s Nebraska. It stars a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and is a haunting (and at times (quirky) funny) account of the Starkweather killings. Highy recommended.

  6. Rick
    January 30th, 2011 at 17:30 | #6

    BTW “John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man” is not the only song about this murder “Getaway John” (recorded in 1959 by Kingston Trio) is also about John Hardy, Cheers

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