There was nothing heroic about Sam Hall, at least the way Tex told it. No mythic elements. No scent of injustice in his execution. He was just a hardcore, unrepentant bad-ass, a self-admitted murderer ("I killed a man they said, and I smashed in his head and I left him there for dead ...") facing the gallows with sneer and weird little whoop. He confronts the sheriff, a preacher, a woman named Molly, or may or may not have done him wrong and a hostile crowd that wants to see him die.
And Sam's main message to them all: "Damn your eyes!" Or was it "Blast Your Hide"? Or some other variation?
I didn't realize it at the time, but Tex Ritter had done a few versions of Sam Hall, It was the first single he recorded for Decca Records in the mid 1930s. And he sang in his first movie, Song of the Gringo in 1936. Here's a video of that:
But "Sam Hall" is much older than that.
Richard Thompson on his 2003 album 10,000 Years of Popular Music, introduces it, saying introduces it calling it "an 1840s" song. Says Thompson, "And the guy who sang it would come on stage in the prison stripes and manacles.... So feel free to boo during the song, boo and hiss ..."
And that's basically correct. The song apparently comes from an old British folk song about a condemned criminal called "Jack Hall," A 1904 book, Folk Songs from the Sommerset edited by Cecil Sharp, quotes Frank Kidson, an early folksong scholar:
Jack Hall was a chimney sweeper, who was executed for burglary in 1701. He had been sold when a child to a chimney sweeper for a guinea ...
About 1845-50 a comic singer named G. W. Ross revived [`Jack Hall'] under the name `Sam Hall,' with an added coarseness not in the original."
Ross apparently turned it into the kind of stage routine Thompson described.
Here's Thompson's version which is based on Ross' song.
Skipping ahead to the 1960s, The Dubliners, an Irish folk group recorded a version of "Sam Hall." I their re-telling, the condemned chimney sweep isn't just a blustery bad guy. He has taken on some aspects of Robin Hood.
I have twenty pounds in store and I’ll rob for twenty more
For the rich must help the poor, so must I ...
Note that the Sam Hall in the British or Irish versions is just a robber, not a murderer. But here in America, our Sam is a killer. Singer Josh White's lyrics are closer in to Ritter's: "You're a bunch of muckers all, goddamn your eyes ..." Here's his version, which first appeared in 1955 on White's album The Story Of John Henry & Ballads, Blues And Other Songs.
Meanwhile, Johnny Cash's Sam, from his 1965 album Sings the Ballads of the True West sounds like a psychotic drunk.
In their 1996 album Green Suede Shoes, the Celt-rock band Black 47 took Sam back to the Emerald Isle. In their version, loosely based on that of The Dubliners, Sam is a chimney sweep again, an oppressed worker who lost his temper at a cruel boss.
I had three fine sons to feed, that's no joke, that's no joke
And a wife worn out from need, that's no joke
But the boss he said to me, "Get your brats out on the street
For they cost too much to feed", that's no lie, that's no lie
My wife died from misery, that's no lie
Oh, I struck the bastard down, I don't deny, I don't deny
Raised the black flag up on high for anarchy
Oh, I struck the bastard down, to hell with bosses, church and crown
But they hunted me to ground like a dog.
Black 47's anarchist martyr's last words are "Liberty for all mankind!"
Very noble. But somehow "Damn your eyes!" strangely is more satisfying.