A somewhat recent comment exchange with Angela Savage has got me thinking about another sort of crime fiction: songs that tell the story of a crime. There are many such songs from many different periods of history. And those songs are from many different genres, too. There is no way I would be able to mention them all. But if you think about it, a song, especially a ballad, can be a very effective way to tell the story of a crime.
Here are just a very few that I thought of as I was reflecting on the question. I know you’ll have several in mind to share, and I sure hope you do. After all, crime fiction can be musical, just as it can be verbal.
The song that got Angela and me ‘talking’ is Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. Written in 1967, it really has more of a focus on the aftermath of a tragedy than on the story of exactly what happened. Much is left to the listener to infer, and although we all have our suppositions, Gentry doesn’t come right out and tell us what, exactly, happened to make Billie Joe jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge. It’s a ballad with a very strong sense of its American Southern roots, and that comes through both in the dialogue and in the descriptions.
Neil Young’s 1969 release Everybody Knows This is Nowhere includes the song Down by the River. In that song, the narrator tells of shooting the woman he loved. Young isn’t, strictly speaking, specific about why the narrator did this, so there’s more than one interpretation of the reasons. In any case, the narrator makes it clear that,
‘This much madness is too much sorrow,’
and seems to just want to escape.
Another song narrated by a man who’s just shot his wife is Hey Joe. Interestingly enough, it’s not entirely clear who, exactly, wrote this song. But it’s believed that the song was written by Billy Roberts. You’ll probably be most familiar with Jimi Hendrix’s version, but it was first commercially recorded (as far as I know, so please put me right if I’m wrong) by The Leaves. This song tells the story of a man who kills his wife after discovering her with another man. He then decides to escape authorities by running to Mexico. This song starts before the crime is committed, and moves on to Joe’s confession of the crime, and his announcement that he’s going on the run.
Smackwater Jack is Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s 1971 story of a man who goes on a crime spree. King doesn’t give us a lot of background on why Smackwater Jack ‘snapped.’ We’re just told that,
‘…he was in the mood for a little confrontation,’ and that
‘…he couldn’t take no more abuse.’
I think one of the most haunting lines in this song is,
‘You can’t talk to a man with a shotgun in his hand.’
Perhaps this is just my view, but it bears an eerie resemblance to some of the tragic shootings we’ve had in the US in recent years.
Bobby Russel’s 1972 song The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia was made memorable by Vicki Lawrence, ‘though it’s also been recorded by other singers, such as Reba McEntire. This song tells the story of justice gone wrong, when a man comes upon a murder scene and is hung for a crime he didn’t commit. He might have had a motive, but as the narrator says, he’s innocent. Interestingly, we find out in the end that the story’s being told by the real murderer, who at the end explains how the crime was committed.
One of Bob Marley’s more famous songs is 1973’s I Shot the Sheriff. Another very famous version was, of course, recorded by Eric Clapton. In this song, the narrator confesses to killing Sheriff John Brown, but swears,
‘…it was in self-defense,’
and tells the story of how the shooting happened. As he tells the story, he’s on the run for another crime, killing the deputy. The narrator says he’s not guilty of that crime, but it’s implied that he’ll probably pay the price for it.
And then there’s Queen’s 1975 Bohemian Rhapsody. This one’s more surreal than the others are. But it basically tells the story of a man who’s about to be taken away for shooting a man. In the course of the song, the narrator describes his reactions to having shot a man:
‘Sends shivers down my spine…’
He’s also understandably anxious about facing trial. There’s a sort of vague reference to a trial, too, in which an argument is made to,
‘Spare him his life.’
It’s one of the more fantasy-like musical crime stories.
Richard Marx’s 1992 Hazard is the story of a young man who’s accused of killing a young woman named Mary. He claims,
‘I swear I left her safe and sound.’
In fact, he makes it clear he cared about her. But it’s not entirely clear from the song that he’s innocent. There’s also a hint in the song that he may be a very troubled person, and could certainly have been capable of killing Mary. There’s just as much possibility, though, that he’s being framed. Unlike many other ballads, this one doesn’t tell the listener (or viewer, if you’ve seen the video) who the killer is, and invites us to work it out.
There are plenty of contemporary songs, too, that tell the story of a crime. For instance, Rihanna’s 2010 song Man Down tells the story of a young woman who murders the man who raped her. She knows she’s in trouble, and isn’t sure what she’s going to do. She deeply regrets taking the life of someone who,
‘Could have been somebody’s son.’
There are, as I said, so many other songs that tell the stories of fiction crimes. Artists such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Miller, and Cold Chisel have written songs that tell the stories of crimes and their aftermaths. And that tradition goes back many, many centuries. You see? Crime fiction can take several forms…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Walkabouts’ Crime Story.