08 November 2013

A Dirty Dozen: Top 12 Death Penalty Songs

Blind Lemon Jefferson, singer of one of 'A Dirty Dozen: Top 12 Death Penalty Songs' Here, in no particular order, are the top twelve death penalty songs that I can (a) recall right now and can (b) find a working link to on the web.

The heightened emotions and drama surrounding the death penalty are perfect ingredients for songwriters wanting to walk on the dark side. Of course this is always more effective in places where capital punishment is still on the books, but the songs looking back into history can also work pretty well too.

There are plenty more songs of this type out there so a volume 2 of this post should be turning up in the future.

'Long Black Veil'
Lefty Frizzell
1959
"The judge said son what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else then you won't have to die
I spoke not a word though it meant my life
For I had been in the arms of my best friend's wife."
Now this is a proper country music song. A man is falsely accused of murder but refuses to provide the alibi that would prove his innocence. Why? He was having an affair with his best friend's wife at the time and was prepared to die in order to protect their secret. What a stand up dude. The kind of best friend we all want, unless we're married. As for me, I would have quite happily told all, complete with photographs.

 

'Mercy Seat'
Johnny Cash
2000
"Into the mercy seat I climb
My head is shaved, my head is wired
And like a moth that tries
To enter the bright eye
I go shuffling out of life
Just to hide in death awhile
And anyway I never lied."
The obligatory Johnny Cash entry. This song was originally written by Nick Cave in 1988 and then brilliantly covered by an elderly Cash in 2000. By that time Cash was nearing 70 years of age and was in poor health, giving this death song an even deeper tone of sombreness. Cash claimed that he had heard the song after seeing some news about Texas executions, and he asked about long-term Death Row inmates, "If a man's been there 25 years, maybe we should consider whether or not he has become a good human being and do we still want to kill him?"


'The Green Green Grass of Home'
Joan Baez
1969
"Then I awake and look around me, at the four grey walls that surround me
and I realize, yes, I was only dreaming.
For there's a guard and there's a sad old padre -
arm in arm we'll walk at daybreak.
Again I touch the green, green grass of home."
Spoiler alert: it was all just a dream! OK, I could have picked any version of this country song. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and Gram Parsons all covered it well, while of course Tom Jones had the biggest hit with it in 1966, a year after it had been written. However, I do like this 1969 cover by Joan Baez quite a lot.


'Send Me to the Electric Chair'
Bessie Smith
1927
"Judge, judge, good mister judge,
Let me go away from here
I wanna take a journey
To the devil down below
I done killed my man
I wanna reap just what I sow
Oh judge, judge, lordy lordy judge
Send me to the 'lectric chair"
The great Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was probably the single most popular female blues singer of her time. This song is often listed as 'traditional' but it can't be too traditional as the electric chair wasn't invented until 1889. In one line Bessie sings 'I cut him with my 'barlow'', referring to a type of folding knife with a single 3-inch blade. Don't mess with Bessie.


'Hang Jean Lee'

Ed Kuepper
2007

A song from Kuepper's 2007 album Jean Lee and the Yellow Dog, which was all about Jean Lee, the last woman to be hanged in Australia (1951). She and her two male accomplices had murdered 73-year-old Bill Kent in Victoria. The Wikipedia account of the crime reminds us of the 'good old days':
"They had heard that he kept money in his home, and thought Kent would be a soft target. While Lee kept Kent busy by performing oral sex, the two men would search the flat for money. The trio later gave conflicting statements to Police but what is known Kent was tied to a chair, by Lee, and over a period of hours all three kicked and beat him, while demanding to know where his money was kept, they took his money roll he had in his pocket but wanted more. Kent was at first defiant, but eventually insisted that he had no extra money. He was tortured then stabbed several times, before Andrews strangled him... Kent was found under a pile of sheets and clothing, his furniture had been broken and his home had been ransacked. A later report claimed that Kent's penis had been cut off and stuffed down his throat."

'Hangman's Blues'
Brownie McGhee
1951
"The hangman's rope is so tough and strong,
Hangman's rope is so tough and strong,
The hangman's rope is so tough and strong,
They gonna hang me boys, cause I done something wrong"
Tennessee-born Walter 'Brownie' McGhee (1915-96) had a long career and even appeared in such films as 'The Jerk' and the TV shows 'Matlock' and 'Family Ties'. Polio left him unable to walk as a child and his brother used to push him around in a cart. Because of this, his brother got the nickname 'Stick' and Stick McGhee went on to become a blues player himself. This song was originally written and recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Brownie McGhee

'I've Gotta Get a Message to You'
The Bee Gees
1968
"Now, I'm crying but deep down inside
Well, I did it to him, now, it's my turn to die
I've just gotta get a message to you
Hold on, hold on
One more hour and my life will be through
Hold on, hold on"
Going into my teenage years, the Bee Gees were definitely not cool. Disco had recently died and become a cultural embarrassment, and the Bee Gees were big casualties of that shift. Their 1960s output, however, still holds up well. They turned out a lot of quality light pop, and were quite fond of writing about mining disasters and that sort of thing. This song, which like 'Green, Green Grass of Home' was about a man in his condemned cell, reached no.1 in Britain in 1968. Not so much of the old 'stayin alive' in this one.


'Nebraska'
Bruce Springsteen
1982
"The jury brought in a guilty verdict and the judge he sentenced me to death
Midnight in a prison storeroom with leather straps across my chest
Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir and snaps my poor neck back
You make sure my pretty baby is sittin right there on my lap"
This understandably bleak song is based on the real-life killing spree of teenager Charles Starkweather in Nebraska and Wyoming in 1957-58, which left eleven people dead. Starkweather was executed in the electric chair in 1959. His accomplice was his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate, and she got a life sentence.

 

''Lectric Chair Blues'
Blind Lemon Jefferson
1928
"And I wonder why they electrocute a man
at the one o'clock hour of night.
Because the current is much stronger,
when the folks has turned out all the lights"
Blind Lemon Jefferson was so named because he was blind (or at least seriously visually impaired) and his first name was, well... Lemon. Born in 1893, he was one of the first and best blues players from Texas. Jefferson recorded this song in 1928, one year before his death (probably of a heart attack while he was lost in a snowstorm). Rumour has it - and I put no credence in these blues singer stories - that when they found his body, his hand was frozen to the neck of his guitar. All in all, a very different kind of death to the electric chair.


'Gallows Pole'
Led Zeppelin
1970
"Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while,
I Think I see my friends coming, Riding a many mile.
Friends, you get some silver?
Did you get a little gold?
What did you bring me, my dear friends? Keep me from the Gallows Pole.
What did you bring me to keep me from the Gallows Pole?"
This ‘Traditional’ (author unknown) song was popularised as a Blues song called ‘Gallis Pole’ by Leadbelly. Led Zeppelin rearranged it and changed the verse. The lyrics are about a prisoner trying to delay his hanging until he can be rescued by his friends and family. There are a number of versions of this song, most of them ending with the hangman setting the prisoner free, but Led Zeppelin's version ends with the hanging taking place despite all the bribes.

A similar folk song called ‘Slack Your Rope’ was sung by Peter, Paul and Mary as ‘Hangman’. It was adapted from a 15th-century British ballad, when even up to the last step on the gallows, most crime could be paid off with money.


'I'll Fly Away'
Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch
2000
"When the shadows of this life have gone,
I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I’ll fly way (I’ll fly away)”
Just a few more weary days and then,
I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end,
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)”
Maybe a bit of a debatable entry this one, but it gets over the line by being on one of my favourite soundtracks at the moment (O Brother, Where Art Thou) and also being referenced by 71-year-old Edward H. Schad, Jr before his execution in Arizona last month. This hymn about 'flying away to God's celestial shore' was written in 1929 by Albert Brumley and was based on a much older song called 'The Prisoner'.

 
'The Last Outlaw'
Le Doogan
2010

And to top off this list with a very local song, here's one about Patrick Kenniff, who was hanged for murder at Brisbane's Boggo Road back in 1903. There's a lot been written about this event and the supposed guilt or innocence of Kenniff, and this 21st-century take from Sydney band 'Le Doogan' was actually written by a Kenniff descendant.
Patrick Kenniff

There are many more songs that could easily have been listed too (e.g. 'Bohemian Rhapsody'), but maybe they can wait for another Top 12.


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