Story Of a Crime*

Songs About CrimesA 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.


Filed under Billy Roberts, Bob Marley, Bobbie Gentry, Bobby Russell, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Young, Queen, Richard Marx

37 responses to “Story Of a Crime*

  1. A recent and very chilling example is David Bowie’s Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) – you just knew I was going to mention David Bowie, didn’t you?
    But of course, if we go back to medieval times, the ballads were full of wronged men and women committing suicide or murder or making pacts with devils…

    • How could you not mention David Bowie, Marina Sofia? And I’m glad you did, as that’s a haunting song. Very happy you filled in that gap. You’re right, too; those sorts of ballads have been written for thousands of years.

  2. Tim

    I give you an entire musical: Sweeney Todd.
    Murders, mayhem, and melodies.

  3. I loved Tom Jones’ “The Green, Green Grass of Home” – I always wondered what awful crime he had committed to justify the death penalty. And Tom Jones again (honestly, I’m not a big fan – he just seems to fit in with this subject) and “Delilah”! My school friend and I learned all the words to that when we were about 15, for reasons that now totally escape me, but I still regularly belt it out while washing the dishes… “I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more!” Haha! Great stuff!

    • It is great stuff, FictionFan! And one doesn’t have to be a Tom Jones fan to appreciate that. Both songs are terrific examples of what I had in mind with this post. And those songs do have the kind of lyrics you can belt out. In fact, I was thinking about Delilah when I was planning this post, but I forgot to include it. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  4. I was going to mention the Tom Jones song too – but FF beat me to it. I find this one odd because it sounds like such a fun song if you don’t listen to the words. A great post which has taken my brain in a completely different direction today because of course songs about crime were the way the stories spread before literacy became the norm in the western world.

    • That’s one reason I find them so fascinating, Cleo. Songs were used for storytelling for a very long time. And in many cultures, they still are. I think it’s easy for us to forget that our cultures use them, too. And you know, you have a point about Delilah‘s melody. If you listen to it without the words, it does sound upbeat. It’s the words that tell the real story…

  5. Pingback: Down by the River Saile | Mel Healy

  6. Margot, I thought of “Delilah” and then saw that FictionFan had mentioned it. How about “Hotel California” by Eagles? There’s no escape with that last line “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave,” is there?

  7. Immediately I thought of “Renegade” by Styx. “Lawman has put an end to my running and I’m so far from my home.” And, “Hangman is coming down from the gallows and I don’t have very long.”

  8. kathyd

    Speaking of Bob Dylan, his song, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” is one that has stayed in my mind for decades since I first heard him sing it. It’s about a 51-year-old woman who is a maid and has given birth to 10 children. William Zanzinger, a wealthy tobacco magnate kills her with his cane, and gets out on bail right away. Then he is sentenced to a six-month jail term.
    So many songs about this type of crime and injustice.

    • That is a really good example, Kathy, of the sort of song I had in mind with this post. And Dylan certainly has done more than one of those sorts of songs. Thanks for reminding me of this one.

  9. kathyd

    And I just found a song by Dylan on “The Death of Emmett Till,” and one by the wonderful folk singer and writer, Phil Ochs,” about the death of Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers, who was also killed.
    Oh, the old days when folk songs were top hits about issues. But I suppose that is happening now with rap and hip-hop and even popular music about current issues.

  10. SteveHL

    Doug Allyn, an excellent writer of short mystery fiction, has written at least two stories about songs about murders, “The Murder Ballads” (EQMM, March, 2002) and “The Bandit Ballads” (EQMM, March/April, 2014).

  11. Here’s another one: The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde — Merle Haggard.

  12. This is such a great topic! I can think of plenty of examples, but am going to go with The Long Black Veil, a modernish ballad/C&W song about a man who gets done for a murder he didn’t commit – he can’t give his alibi because he was with his best friend’s wife. It’s completely OTT, very melodramatic, and the explanation for the long black veil of the title is haunting. I LOVE it – many people have sung it, but I have a great version by Mick Jagger and the Chieftains.

    • Thank you, Moira 🙂 – And your suggestion is excellent! I really like it! And there is something about those melodramatic ballads that stays with one, OTT or not. You have to love the way they tell those dramatic stories.

  13. A fascinating topic, and a lot of good suggestions in the comments too. I never thought much about this topic before.

    • I think it’s an interesting topic, too, Tracy. Perhaps it’s because I love music that I notice the stories in so many songs. And there really are a lot of them that tell the stories of crimes. Those ballads can be very haunting, in my opinion.

  14. kathyd

    When I was in high school, Joan Baez sang The Long Black Veil, and it was very popular in our house. I used to walk around the neighborhood thinking of it and humming or singing it.

  15. How about – Where the Wild Roses Grow? Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave- this is a haunting ballad

  16. You are right – there are many songs out there which cover fictional crimes. Paul Kelly came to mind for me ‘I Don’t Remember a Thing’ and ‘Everything’s Turning to White’ which was inspired by a Raymond Carver story. Thanks for sending me off on a satisfying tangent.

  17. Col

    Not a fan of his work after reading just one, but did “legend in his own mind” Kinky Friedman sing crime as well as write it? I’m scared to look it up myself!

    • No worries, Col – I spared you. Friedman did do at least one crime ballad: The Ballad of Charles Whitman. It’s a musical telling of a real-life killer, who murdered 16 people and wounded another 33 at the University of Texas in 1966.

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