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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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