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Posts Tagged ‘Murder Songs’

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. 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).