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Any Major Murder Songs Vol. 1

October 25th, 2018 6 comments

 

The Halloween well is now dry, but you can still get your chills on with this delightful collection of songs about murder.

It’s quite surprising how many sings about murder there are, mostly from the perspective of the killer. In the case of Pat Hare, almost literally.

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.

Many of the murder ballads are folk songs that have been covered many times. A few of the tracks here are also covers, such as country-soul singer Andre Williams reworking of Johnny Paycheck’s song. The weirdest of them, though, has to be Olivia Newton-John singing about murdering her boyfriend.

There are longer discussions on some of the featured songs, and others that will feature, in the eight parts of the Murder Ballads series.

Just to be clear, this mix does not promote murder. Don’t kill, kids.

As ever, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R and includes home-CSIed covers. PW in comments.

  1. R. Dean Taylor – Indiana Wants Me (1970)
    The Vic: A man needed dyin’ for what he said about you
  2. Sting – I Hung My Head (1996)
    The Vic: The lone rider
  3. Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues (1969)
    The Vic: A man in Reno
  4. Porter Wagoner – The Cold Hard Facts Of Life (1967)
    The Vic: The folks who taught Porter the cold, hard facts of life
  5. Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger (1975)
    The Vic: The yellow-haired lady
  6. Jim & Jesse – Knoxville Girl (1976)
    The Vic: A little girl in Knoxville
  7. The Everly Brothers – Down In The Willow Garden (1958)
    The Vic: Rose Connolly
  8. Olivia Newton-John – Banks Of The Ohio (1971)
    The Vic: Livvy’s marriage-shy boyfriend (and you see his point)
  9. The Band – Long Black Veil (1968)
    The Vic: “Someone”
  10. The Grateful Dead – Stagger Lee (1978)
    The Vic: Billy, a gambler
  11. Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue – Where The Wild Roses Grow (1997)
    The Vic: Elisa Day
  12. Elvis Costello – Psycho (1981)
    The Vics: His ex, Jackie White, Betty Clark, Momma…and Johnny’s puppy, too
  13. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)
    The Vics: Everything in his path
  14. Andre Williams – Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone To Kill) (2000)
    The Vic: Her and his love rival
  15. Lyle Lovett – L.A. County (1987)
    The Vics: The bride and the groom
  16. Bill Brandon – Rainbow Road (1976)
    The Vic: A man with a knife (so it’s self-defence, your honor)
  17. Dixie Nightingales – Assassination (1965)
    The Vic: The President
  18. Elton John – The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1973)
    The Vic: Danny Bailey, a gangster, in cold blood
  19. The Buoys – Timothy (1971)
    The Vic: Timothy (because of hunger)
  20. Tony Christie – I Did What I Did For Maria (1971)
    The Vic: Maria’s murderer
  21. Conway Twitty – Ain’t It Sad To Stand And Watch Love Die (1968)
    The Vic: An unfaithful wife
  22. Johnny Darrell – River Bottom (1969)
    The Vic: “That pretty gal of mine”
  23. Clyde Arnold – Black Smoke And Blue Tears (1961)
    The Vic: The gambler
  24. Pat Hare – I’m Gonna Kill My Baby (1954)
    The Vic: In the song, Pat’s baby. In real life, later, the same.

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Murder Songs Vol. 8

January 30th, 2012 4 comments

In this trio of murder sings, we deal with a horse-loving psycho, a mother-loving psycho and a couple of miners for whom three was a crowd.

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Willie Nelson – The Red-Headed Stranger (1975).mp3
Ah, the follies of the blonde woman! As the song begins, we are told what the “yellow-haired lady” doesn’t know: don’t mess with the red-headed stranger and, whatever you do, don’t try and steal his pony (here we must assume that Nelson actually means a young equine). And since she doesn’t know not to mess with the red-headed stranger and since she does covet the pony, she initiates a tragic chain of events.

First she makes friendly with the red-headed stranger (we presume here that the colour describes his hair, not a sunburn sustained by a bald head subjected to the ultraviolet rays piercing the Montana air). He doesn’t respond to her flirtatious ways, even gives her money to go away. Fatefully, the blonde is not going to be deterred by otherwise compelling suggestion. She follows the red-haired stranger outside and touches the pony, presumably in ways that hint at an act of larceny. The red-headed stranger firmly puts forward a conclusion to the problem by putting a bullet in the women’s head.

We should have no moral dilemma here. By all reason, the red-headed stranger did something very wrong. Strangely, Willie Nelson and the local judicary, seem to disagree: “You can’t hang a man for killing a woman who’s trying to steal your horse.”

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Eddie Noack – Psycho (1968)
Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Psycho (live, 1981).mp3
Who’d be the mother of a psychopath? We first encounter the hungry Declan (for want of a better moniker, the song doesn’t name his narrator, so let’s go with Costello’s maiden name) afflicted with a headache in the family home. The baby’s crying, which doesn’t exactly lighten Declan’s mood as he recounts to his mother an encounter with his ex-girlfriend the day before. “She was at the dance at Miller’s store. She was with that Jackie White, Mama. I killed them both and they’re buried under Jacob’s sycamore.”

As he speaks, Mama makes the schoolgirl error of handing her psycho son a puppy (puppy lovers, look away now). The puppy doesn’t survive Declan’s attention, but we learn that Dec is quite aware of his mental state and the need for institutionalised therapy. Things don’t get much more cheerful, and you don’t really know whether to be repulsed at Declan, or feel sorry for him.

Psycho was written by Leon Payne (whose I Love You Because was recorded by the young Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, George Jones and John Prine), and first recorded in 1968 by Eddie Noack to no particular attention, but became a hit five years later for Jack Kittel.

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The Buoys – Timothy (1971).mp3
So, imagine you’re trapped in a coalmine with your colleagues Joe and Tim. And soon hunger sets in, and thirst. The reader blessed with sherlockian powers of deduction will by now have worked out that by the time the rescue is completed, only two miners emerge blinkingly into the daylight — and the eponymous Timothy is not one of them.

“Hungry as hell, no food to eat, and Joe said that he would sell his soul for just a piece of meat. Water enough to drink for two, and Joe said to me: ‘I’ll take a swig, and then there’s some for you.” Knowing that Timothy didn’t survive, we have a sense of foreboding. “Timothy, Timothy – Joe was looking at you. Timothy, Timothy – God, what did we do?”

Well, you don’t really know what happened next (or so you say). “I must’ve blacked out just ’bout then, ’cause the very next thing that I could see was the light of the day again. My stomach was full as it could be and nobody ever got around to finding Timothy.” You and Joe ate Timothy’s bones and hair as well? Yuk!

The song, banned on US radio on its release, was written by Rupert Holmes, who also gave us the regrettable Escape (Pina Colada Song) and the much more brilliant Him. Despite that (or perhaps because of it), it reached #7 on the US charts.

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Murder Songs Vol. 7

June 9th, 2011 2 comments

And here are three more murder songs. One is chilling, one is mournful, and one is camper than David.

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Andre Williams – Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone To Kill) (2000).mp3
Hello friend, meet Andre Williams. He’s got someone to kill, and he will tell you why. This is not a shooting-a-man-in-Reno-just-to-see-him-die kind of deal. This killing is premeditated, but our new friend believes he has a good reason. “I warned him not to try and take her from me. He laughed and said: ‘If I can, you know I will.’” His pal will have to pay for not heeding the warning. “So tonight, when they get home, I’ll be waiting,” he reveals before prematurely excusing himself:  “Pardon me, I’ve got someone to kill.”

So, he’ll just pop the corrupt pal then? Well, no. Having just excused himself, Andre nevertheless goes on about what he’s planning to do. He’ll kill both of them, and – knowing that his crime will warrant the death penalty – do himself in once the dirty deed is done. And don’t think of going to the law with a notion of preventing a bloodbath. “By the time you tell the sheriff, it’ll all be over. He’ll find me at their big house on the hill. He’ll find a note explaining why I killed us all.” We imagine your new friend downing his beer, wiping his mouth, getting up and nod to you as he says: “Now it’s time to go, I’ve got someone to kill.”

The song was originally recorded by country man Johnny Paycheck ; it’s covered here by veteran soul-country singer Andre Williams, who has one chilling mother of a voice.

The Everly Brothers – Down In The Willow Garden (1958).mp3
Strumming gently, the Everly Brothers sing about a picnic in the eponymous garden with Rose Connelly. Ah, but the downbeat voices (copied pretty much directly from the Louvin Brothers) alert us that the story won’t have a happy ending. At first it sounds cosy enough: “As we sat a-courtin’ my love fell off to sleep.” Well, it’s cosy if you don’t take offense to your date nodding off. But it’s not her fault: our friend gave her poisoned wine (Burgundy, the oenologists will want to now). Imagine the wine tasting of that: “I discern a suggestion of berries with a hint of cinnamon, papaya and cyanide.”

Our friend isn’t done yet. Having poisoned poor Rose Connelly, he stabs her and then throws her body in the river. Turns out his father put him up to it, for demon money. Of coursed our friend gets caught, and look at this contemptible exemplar of fatherhood now: “My father sits at his cabin door, wiping his tear-dimmed eyes, for his only son soon shall walk to yonder scaffold high.”

Tony Christie – I Did What I Did For Maria (1971).mp3
Alas, poor Tony Christie. First he struggled with the SatNav en route to Amarillo, now he is about to be hanged. To clarify, lacking a sense of direction and having a map-reading disability is not a capital offense in most US states (though it might be in Texas, where they’ll execute you for pretty much anything). No, what Tony will hang for is murder. He accepts his fate, “going to the Lord with no fear”, but hopes to persuade us of the justice of his case through the medium of catchy pop music.

In fact, either Tonyhas  had a really rotten lawyer, or he stood trial in Texas for murder (and, possibly, for having lost his way to Amarillo as well). His crime was a revenge killing for the apparently sadistic murder of Tony’s wife, Maria. It was a high noon scene: “As I rode into town with the sun going down all the windows were barred. There was no one around for they knew that I’d come with my hand on my gun and revenge in my heart for Maria.” The depraved reprobate who killed Maria, possibly a relative of the notorious Gatlin boys, came out laughing, but he was dealing with a rather more decisive fellow than a coward of the county. No messing around with fists as the coward of the county would; Tony’s gun was gonna smoke. “He fell to the ground, raisin’ dust all around. But I knew he was dead long before he went down. It was quick, it was clean. Made it easy on him…which is more than he did for Maria.”  I sense extenuating circumstances, Your Honour.

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Murder Songs Vol. 6

March 17th, 2011 3 comments

Last time in Murder Songs we visited the scenes of three real-life crimes, and today we return to two real crime scenes and to one epochal trial.

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Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam (1964).mp3
This is Nina Simone at her best: an intensely angry protest song in the style not of a mournful blues, as one might expect from the angry title, but delivered as a cabaret tune (“The show hasn’t been written for it yet”, she sardonically notes midway through), recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1963, and released a year later. She sets her stall out early: “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam, and I mean every word of it.”

It is a reaction to the murder in Mississippi of civil rights activist Medgar Evers on 12 June 1963 (his murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted of his crime only 30 years later; the racist murderer died in jail in 2001). Simone also alludes to the racist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four girls. The lyrics get angrier and Simone is disillusioned: “Oh but this whole country is full of lies. You’re all gonna die and die like flies. I don’t trust you anymore. You keep on saying, ‘Go slow! Go slow!’” Ah, the privileged pleading for patience by those whom they oppress. Nina she is rightly impatient: “You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality!” In the event, the public outrage over Medgar Evers’ murder – articulated by Simone in this song – hurried along the process of some semblance of equal rights.

Mississippi Goddam was released as a single, Simone’s first on the Phillips label. To the shock of absolutely nobody, it was banned in much of the South, ostensibly because of its supposedly blaspemous title.

Leadbelly – Duncan And Brady (1947).mp3
A sheriff walks into a bar. He tells the barman that he is under arrest. The barman pulls his .44, shoots the law enforcement officer repeatedly. But it’s okay, because the cop was corrupt (“on the job too long”) .

The song was first recorded in 1929 by Wilmer Watts & Lonely Eagles from North Carolina. It is based on the shooting of the patrolman James Brady in a St Louis bar on 6 October 1880.It’s unclear when exactly the song was written. The reference to the electric car in the lyrics used in most versions provides a clue. In 1895, the New York financier Diamond Jim Brady received quite a bit of press coverage for using an electric buggy, the first time a car was used in Manhattan. A year earlier, as we will see, the James Brady killing case had come to a close. It is plausible that the ‘lectric car reference was a contemporary gag by the lyricist, playing on the shared name of the St Louis victim and the New York businessman.

The real story goes like this: Patrolman Brady entered the Charles Starkes Saloon, ostensibly to intervene in a bar brawl. Shots were fired (possibly a reaction to common police harassment of African-Amerian bar patrons), fatally injuring Brady. One Harry Duncan was accused of the shooting and, after much legal wrangling that reached the Supreme Court (Duncan’s lawyer, Walter Moran Farmer, thus became the first African-American to argue before the Supreme Court) was executed for the murder of Brady in 1894. Duncan, however, always insisted that it was the saloon’s eponymous owner who fired the fatal shot. Starkes, it is said, confessed on his deathbed to having been the shooter.

Starkes’ saloon was located in an area of St Louis that gave rise to two even more famous murder songs. The Stagger Lee story happened across the road; the murder in Frankie And Johnny a couple of blocks away.

Bill Cox – The Trial Of Bruno Richard Hauptmann Part 1 (1935).mp3
Bill Cox – The Trial Of Bruno Richard Hauptmann Part 2 (1935).mp3

It was the trial of the decade: the German immigrant Hauptmann who was accused and found guilty of kidnapping and killing the infant son of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh in 1932. There are those who believe that Hauptmann was unjustly convicted of the crime, for which he was executed. Indeed, the case for Hauptmann having been framed has been enthusiastically pursued in several books and TV documentaries. Even the New York governor who denied Hauptmann a pardon at the time had his doubts, and the evidence certainly is not more than circumstantial (though the body of circumstantial evidence is not negligible). Guilty or not, Hauptmann was not a nice guy. He had been a petty criminal in Germany before his illegal immigration to the US. Lindbergh was not a great guy either, as it turned out. He lost a big slice of public sympathy when he turned out to be an avid Nazi sympathiser.

But Bill Cox (pictured) – a singer, songwriter and noted harmonica player  – did not know yet about Lindbergh’s dark side. And if he did, it didn’t matter much, because his gig is to tell the story of the trial, in two parts, right down to the piece of evidence involving gold certificates paid by Lindbergh as part of the ransom to the kidnapper.

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Murder Songs Vol. 5

November 18th, 2010 6 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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Murder Songs Vol. 4

September 23rd, 2010 6 comments

Porter Wagoner – The First Mrs Jones (1967).mp3
Once upon a time Mr Jones fell in love with Betty. He married her in September, but by November she had left him. And as Mr Jones tells his story, we can sort of see why. When Betty (he prefers to call her The First Mrs Jones) left, Mr Jones went into überstalker mode. He followed her to Savannah, New Orleans and Atlanta, pestering her to return to him. Then the drinking started (though we have a hunch that Mr Jones was not averse to the occasional tipple before). “It was cold and dark one morning, just before the day was dawning, when I staggered from a tavern to a phone. When she picked up her receiver I said: ‘You’re gonna come back or either they’re gonna be calling you the Late Mrs Jones.” Clearly Betty made clear her intentions to decline the offer, but evidently saw no need to seek safe refuge. So, to cut a long story short, Mr Jones took a taxi, made a lot of noise outside her house. He doesn’t remember what happens next. Consciousness returned when he was burying her bones in the woods, touchingly putting flowers on the fresh grave.

So why is Mr Jones telling us his unlovely story? Well, he isn’t addressing us, which we know because now things are taking a sinister turn: he is talking to his new wife who evidently is entertaining crazy notions of leaving him. “Really now, don’t you wanna come go with me? After all, you are the Second…Mrs Jones.”

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Rosie Thomas – Charlotte (2002).mp3
This is a gentle song in which the narrator observes her eponymous neighbour and friend suffering the treatment of an abusive drunkard husband. “Charlotte, you used to be much happier, but it’s not you that’s to blame. Charlotte, you let him push you round, and you’re falling apart at the seams.” But the bad times won’t last forever. “One day he’ll get just what he deserves, and you can be yourself once again.” Soon there’s drama again. There’s yelling and threats and, suddenly, a shot. The narrator runs over, and sees the scumbag dead in his chair. She tells Charlotte: “I’ll tell the cops everything.” But she does not mean the truth. She concocts a cover-up, so that Charlotte can start a new life somewhere else.

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Neil Young – Down By The River (1969)
Neil Young is running a theme as old as song itself — the crime of passion; the wronged husband avenging his honour (Porter Wagoner will feature again with one of the best songs on that theme). But this being 1969, and musicians of Young’s ilk more interested in laying down guitar jams than producing lucid lyrics, we must figure out ourselves the circumstances leading to the murder, which the narrator at least admits to: “Down by the river, I shot my baby. Down by the river…Dead, oh, shot her dead.” The rest is just crazy hippie talk about rainbows. So, obviously, youngologists believe the song is about heroin.

Well, the whiny, occasional Republican clarified the meaning in 1984 at a gig in New Orleans. The narrator met his woman at the titular location. “And he told her she’d been cheatin’ on him one too many times. And he reached down in his pocket and he pulled a little revolver out. Said: ‘Honey, I hate to do this, but you pushed me too far’.” Two hours later he gets arrested at his house. Young’s full explanation can be found here. I just want to know why he didn’t say all that in the song?

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Murder songs Vol. 3

September 14th, 2010 4 comments

When we read about a vicious crime, our sympathy extends to the victim’s family and we grieve the loss of another fragment of our innocence as humanity’s capacity for cruelty relentlessly chips away at the “heile Welt” of our childhood. But rarely do our thoughts concern those who love the criminal, whose loss of a loved one to the wheels of justice may be compounded by their own incomprehension at the act, the social stigma and indignity of their association with the criminal (the family’s final visit to the condemned man in Dead Man Walking drives that home powerfully), and possibly economic hardship. And with that out of the way, let’s meet some killers.

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Clyde Arnold – Black Smoke And Blue Tears (1961).mp3
In Clyde Arnold’s superb 1961 rockabilly song, the narrator recalls boarding a train to commence his sentence for murdering a man in a gambling dispute (“I didn’t mean to kill him. Why did he have to die?”). On the platform he gives his darling a last kiss goodbye — “I tried to hide my handcuffs, she tried to hide her tears” — before he boarded the train of the black smoke which with the blue tears in his yes obscure his last vision of the girl.

It’s been a while since then, and she has evidently moved on. “Seems like a hundred years have passed since that sad, sad day. I guess by now she’s forgotten me, since I’ve been away.” But he has not forgotten. “Lookin’ through the bars tonight, dark clouds in the sky,remind me of that coal black smoke and blue tears in my eyes.”

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Johnny Cash – 25 Minutes To Go (live, 1969).mp3
We don’t know the crime of Cash’s narrator, but we know that “they’re building a gallows outside my cell; I’ve got 25 minutes to go”. Other than high treason, you presumably get executed only for murder in the US. The narrator counts down the final 25 minutes before his execution. We learn that his last meal was beans, that his appeals are unsuccessful, that he spits a mocking sheriff in the eye (to the delight of the audience at Folsom Prison), that the trap and rope are being checked, that he does not want to die but eventually he must go-o-o-o-o-o-o-o… I’m not sure whether the song is necessarily an anti-capital punishment statement, but the black humour barely masks the inhumanity of a man counting down the minutes till his carefully appointed death.

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Alice Cooper – Killer (1971).mp3
Alice Cooper’s narrator is feeling rather sorry for himself. “What did I do to deserve such a fate?” See, somebody handed him a gun. It’s always somebody else’s fault (except in Johnny Cash’s songs. He always takes the rap). The narrator says he “didn’t really want to get involved in this thing”. But he did, and now he is facing the consequences for his crime, no matter his complaining that nothing ever came easy. Poverty and hardship may explain crime, perhaps even justify petty crimes, but not everybody who is poor becomes a violent criminal. We all have a choice. So much for the lyrics. The sound of the song hints at an alternative reality: it sounds to me as though the narrator is descending into madness. Was he mentally ill when he committed the crime? Is he now committing suicide (“Now I need to escape. Someone near me, calling my name.”).

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Murder songs Vol. 2

June 1st, 2010 3 comments

It has been a while since I inaugurated this series of songs about murder. In the three songs for the second instalment, we observe a musician killing in self-defence, a crime of passion, and a family making excuses for their very fucked-up son.

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Bill Brandon – Rainbow Road (1969).mp3

This deep soul track by the little known Bill Brandon used to be very rare. Thanks to the Internet, it is now accessible to a wider audience. And what an absolutely breathtaking record it is. The song apparently was written for Arthur Alexander, who has previously featured on this blog, but Alexander recorded it only in 1973. In the song, a down-on-his-luck singer is discovered and takes the fork in the road marked success, the Rainbow Road of the title. The mentor pays of his debt, clothes our friend in finery. “And then one night a man with a knife forced me to take his life,” Bill tells us. As bad luck would have it, he finds himself before an unsympathetic judge who clearly does not buy the self-defence line. So instead of his signature shining in bright lights, he is wearing a number instead of a name. But “I still dream about Rainbow Road”.

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Conway Twitty – Ain’t It Sad To Stand and Watch Love Die (1968).mp3
The killing of passion was a staple in 1960s country. Porter Wagoner based a whole, excellent album on it. One can understand what drive the narrator to murder: not only was his woman cheating on him, but he caught her in the act with his best friend. So it’s not only a sense of jealousy and possessiveness the triggers the killing, but the anger of a double betrayal. There isn’t much confrontation: the narrator shoots them “were they lied”. He records his unfaithful wife’s last words, which evidently do not elicit mercy from our friend, because having watched love die, he is not open to negotiation.  The neighbours are coming over, posing the reasonable question: “Oh my God, what have you done?” His response is unnerving; putting the gun to his head, the narrator asks repeatedly: “Neighbour, ain’t it sad to stand and watch love die?”

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Warren Zevon – Excitable Boy (1978).mp3
The great Zevon imparts a valuable lesson: if your son mistakes Sunday lunch for an occasion to rub pot roast all over his chest, don’t laugh it off. And when he bites the usherette on the leg, don’t put it down to the high japery. Because next, he’ll take little Suzie to the junior prom, then rape and killed her, and take her home. And his idiot family still thinks it’s because he’s just being “excitable”. After ten years he is released from custody at an appropriate facility, and promptly goes to Suzie’s grave, digs her up and take her bones home. And guess what the family is saying?

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Murder songs Vol. 1

March 9th, 2010 8 comments

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).