The Godfather: Peter Corris on execution songs
Earlier this year my column dealt with what I called ‘unspoken backstory’ songs. I was prompted to think of other styles of songs, those with a distinctive mode or theme. Execution songs, where the subject is about to be executed, rendered in either the first or third person, are an example.
One of the most stirring is ‘Roddy McCorley’ which deals with the historical fact of the execution of a young Irishman who had taken part in the Irish rebellion of 1798 against British rule. Referred to as ‘young’ in the chorus, the details of McCorley’s life and participation in the rebellion are unclear. It is not even certain whether he was Catholic or Protestant, but his status as an Irish rebel martyr is rock-solid. He was to die by hanging near ‘the bridge of Toome’ in County Antrim.
The song, to an emotive tune, was written almost 100 years after the execution and was popularised in the 20th century by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. It is the only political execution song of which I am aware.
More usually, the offender is guilty of killing a woman – a wife or lover. For example ‘Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley’, popularised by the Kingston Trio in the 1950s. Again, there is uncertainty about the actual identity of the subject. It is speculated that the model might be one Thomas Dula, hanged for murder in North Carolina in 1868.
There is no doubt, however, about the crime. In first-person verses, the man about to be executed admits to killing a woman by stabbing her with a knife. The circumstances are unclear. The preamble to the song suggests it’s an eternal triangle story and there is a mention of ‘Grayson’, presumably the other man.
Interestingly, as with ‘Roddy McCorley’, there is an emphasis on the youth of the protagonist – he is a ‘poor boy’. He is urged to ‘hang down his head’, to feel contrition, a common theme in these songs, but not in all.
Marty Robbins’s ballad about a double slaying, ‘They’re Hanging Me Tonight’, is soaked in pathos and the details are crystal clear. A first-person song again, the singer’s woman, Flo, has taken up with another man despite his protests. Desperately he seeks her in the town.
When he discovers her, he takes out his pistol and shoots her and her lover, who is unnamed but is ‘good for nothing’. He is contrite, admitting that ‘it wasn’t right’, but rough and very swift frontier justice is implied by the title, for although Flo will be buried the following day, ‘They’re hangin’ me tonight’.
New and recurrent themes are displayed in a collection of similar songs. Gram Parsons’s ‘Sing Me Back Home’ is unusually collegiate, with the executee asking for a song from a fellow prisoner. He requests a song to remind him of home and family, and a religious sensibility is displayed when he recalls a vivid memory of a gospel-singing group.
Home, family and religion are present again in Tom Jones’s iconic rendering of ‘The Green Green Grass of Home’. The singer dreams of a happy homecoming only to awake and realise he is about to be executed. The homecoming and the execution are conflated in his mind. He envisages meeting with his parents and ‘my sweet Mary’, while knowing that he will be laid beneath the green, grass of home. Consolation is at hand in the person of ‘a sad old padre’ but in neither of these two songs is there any information about the crime, and there is no contrition.
Tony Christie’s hit ‘I Did What I Did for Maria’ presents a strong contrast to these laments. Sunrise will see his end ‘out in the courtyard’ but there is no padre. The singer has no need of consolation because he is adamant that his killing (an apparently ruthless execution) of the murderer of his wife is justified. An Old Testament theology is evoked – an eye for eye plus a life for a life. No remorse; just prideful defiance.
The grimmest of these songs is Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, loosely based on the 1958 killing spree by 19-year-old Charles Starkweather. Springsteen employs the harsh, cracked voice used throughout the album, which has become a classic. Not only does the executee have no regrets but he actually denies any such emotion and describes the killing (in fact of 11 people) as ‘fun’.
Unusually in such songs, there are specific details here of the prospective execution – midnight, leather straps, a switch being thrown in a prison storeroom. In addition there are cruel sociopathic touches, such as the request that his teenage girlfriend involved in the killings (his ‘pretty baby’) be ‘sittin’ right there on my lap’.
I’m sure there are more songs in this category and I invite readers to name them, but I feel confident that some of the abiding themes – the deaths of women, the youth of executees, contrition, a flavour of religion and a sentimental evocation of home and family, will usually be present.