As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 11, 2005
If there were more singers and guitar pickers in the Roundhouse, the debate on capital punishment would have been settled years ago.
You look at the number of songs about the death penalty and you realize how lopsided the debate is in the hoary mists of song lyrics.
It goes back to my theory of crime-and-punishment songs in general: It never hurts a politician to advocate getting tough on criminals, locking ‘em up, and frying the really bad ones.
But the songs we know and love tell a different story. You rarely hear these law ‘n’ order sentiments in the lyrics of American music. There you hear mainly sympathy for the men workin’ on the chain gang, and even compassion for those on death row.
Here’s my top 10 favorite death penalty tunes.
1) “Ellis Unit One” by Steve Earle. Earle is an activist fighting the death penalty. He’s written several songs about the subject, but this one nailed it. The original version appeared on 1995’s Music From and Inspired By Dead Man Walking, but I personally prefer subsequent versions with background vocals by the gospel group The Fairfield Four.
The narrator of the song is a guy who works in the Texas prison where executions are conducted. “Well, I've seen ‘em fight like lions, boys/ I've seen 'em go like lambs/And I've helped to drag ‘em when they could not stand /And I've heard their mamas cryin' when they heard that big door slam/ And I've seen the victim's family holdin' hands.”
And by the end of the song, it’s getting to him. He’s dreaming of being strapped to the lethal injection table himself and feeling “something cold and black pullin' through my lungs.”
2) “Sing Me Back Home” by Merle Haggard. This was a big country hit for Hag in the late ‘60s. It’s got something going for it most of the songs here don’t: It’s based on actual people the singer knew while he was in San Quentin Prison who were executed. One was Caryl Chessman, a convicted serial rapist who Haggard -- and many others -- believed to be innocent.
Writing about Chessman’s execution in his autobiography My House of Memories, Haggard said , “On a hillside outside of prison, a group of people had gathered to sing gospel songs. Many were protesting capital punishment in general; others were protesting Chessman’s pending execution. Others just came to sing to a dead man walking to his grave.” The incident inspired the line, “I recall last Sunday morning a choir from off the street/came in to sing a few old gospel songs” from this song.
3) “Karla Faye” by Mary Gauthier. This tearjerker is about the 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker by the state of Texas. Gauthier’s Louisiana drawl is sweet as sugar, though by the end of the song it feels like you’ve been punched in the gut. Tasmania-born country singer Audrey Auld Mezera’s covers “Karla Faye” on her new album Texas.
4) “The Mercy Seat” by Nick Cave. This song, also covered by Johnny Cash, is one of Cave’s most intense, dealing both with the physical reality of death in the electric chair and the psychological breakdown of the condemned man in the days leading up to it.
5) “Green, Green Grass of Home” by Johnny Darrell. This song, later made more famous by Tom Jones, was popular on the country charts a couple of years before “Sing Me Back Home.” Until the last verse, the tune sounds like some sentimental drunk recalling the old folks back home. But then you find out he was only dreaming. “For there’s a guard and there’s a sad old padre/Arm in arm we’ll walk at daybreak …” He’ll be returning to the green, green grass of home -- only when he’s buried beneath it.
6) “Long Black Veil” This modern “folk” song, written by Danny Dill, has been recorded by Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, The Band, The Chieftains (with Mick Jagger on vocals) It’s the story of a guy who gets the noose after being convicted of murder in a case of mistaken identity. “I spoke not a word, though it meant my life/I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.”
7) “I’ve Just Got to Get a Message to You” by The Bee Gees. A kindly preacher about to walk the last mile with the narrator of n this late ’60s Bee Gees hit. The narrator is ambivalent about his punishment: “Well, I did it to him, now it's my turn to die.” All he can think about is sending a last farewell to some unnamed loved one.
8) “Sam Hall” This tune is about a defiant criminal shouting taunts at his enemies from the gallows and bragging about his crimes. At one point it was a British Musical Hall number -- as covered by Richard Thompson in his 1000 Years of Popular Music -- though it had a previous life as song about Captain Kidd. Tex Ritter put Sam in the guise of an Old West outlaw. In the version by Irish/American rock group Black 47, Sam is an Irish Republican hero.
9) “Stack O’Lee Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt. There have been countless versions, but Hurt’s 1928 recording provides a rare pro-death penalty song. “Standing on the gallow, Stack O’ Lee did curse/The judge says `let’s kill him before he kills one of us,' ” he sings. The bad man who killed Billy DeLyons for a $5 Stetson hat is hardly a folk hero in Hurt’s version, which concludes, “At 12 o’clock they killed him/They was all glad to see him die.”
10) “Send Me to the Electric Chair” by Bessie Smith. This tune, circa 1928, is about someone who has murdered her lover and demands to be executed, showing no remorse. In the mid ‘70s David Bromberg, who revived the song in a neo-Dixieland style even better capturing its wicked humor.
Hear these songs on Terrell's Sound World, 10 p.m. - midnight (Actually I'll start this set right after the 11th hour) Sunday on KSFR, 90.7 FM, Santa Fe Public Radio.
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