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  • Crimesongs

    Posted by David Foster on June 28th, 2018 (All posts by )

    There are a lot of good songs about the criminal way of life…

    Emmylou Harris, Ain’t Living Long Like This

    Tom Russell, Doin’ Hard Time in Texas

    Ian Tyson, Claude Dallas

    Emmylou Harris, Pancho and Lefty

    Roy Drusky, Down in the Valley (Birmingham Jail)

    Jimmie Rodgers, another version of the above, called Moonlight and Skies

    Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

    Sam Cooke, Frankie and Johnny

    Mississippi John Hurt, Stagger Lee

    Wilson Pickett, another version of Stagger Lee

    Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (with Tom Russell), The Sky Above, The Mud Below

    Two other great Tom Russell songs, Hong Kong Boy and He Wasn’t a Bad Kid When He Was Sober

    What else?


    28 Responses to “Crimesongs”

    1. Grurray Says:

      I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole.
      No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried

    2. David Foster Says:

      An interesting article about the real story behind the song Claude Dallas:

    3. knirirr Says:

      How about “Work Song”? Here‘s a version; this and others turn up quite often on my favourite radio station.

    4. Henry Matchen Says:

      Sam Cooke: Working on the Chain Gang
      Bruce Springsteen: Darlington County

    5. Bill Brandt Says:

      Kingston Trio – Tom Dooley

      The Clash – I Fought the Law

    6. Whitehall Says:

      Jimmy Buffet’s “The Great Filling Station Holdup”

      “We’re wanted men, we’ll strike again, but first let’s have a beer.”

      “No pictures on a poster, no reward, and no bail”

    7. Grurray Says:

      Good one Henry. I forgot about Springsteen

      Here is Ballad Of The Self Loading Pistol

    8. David Foster Says:

      There’s also Mack the Knife

      …a useful reminder that there are other ways to kill people than with guns.

    9. CapitalistRoader Says:

      Not exactly crime, but I’ve always had the impression that Johnny’s on parole.

    10. David Foster Says:

      Frankie and Johnny

      When Francis Cammaerts, the British SOE secret agent responsible for organizing Resistance activities across a wide geography in Southern France, was arrested by the Germans, then his SOE partner, Krystina Skarbek, sang this song outside the prison–evidently a favorite of theirs–to let him know she was aware of his situation. When I met Cammaerts in 2001, I asked him if this story was true, since it seemed rather surprising that these two Europeans would have known this American song. He confirmed that it was.

    11. Mike K Says:

      Tom Jones, “The green green grass of home.”

    12. David Foster Says:

      MikeK…I heard the Green Green Grass of Home in Tokyo…sung in Japanese!

    13. Bill Brandt Says:


      Isn’t Mac the knife about a shark? I’ve got a look at the lyrics again. It has been a while.

    14. John Mulcahy Says:

      Johnny Cash, Highway Patrolman–one of my favorites

    15. T Migratorious Says:

      Check out the Surreal McCoys mashup of “Folsom Prison Blues” and Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

      The result “Whole Lotta Folsom.” Surprisingly effective.

    16. Anonymous Says:

      “MikeK…I heard the Green Green Grass of Home in Tokyo…sung in Japanese!”

      Would have been better if it had been sung in English with a Jaspanese accent.

      Steve Miller Band, Take the Money and Run

      Marty Robbins, El Paso


    17. Duane Says:

      Tons of tunes from Warren Zevon: Frank and Jesse James, Mr Bad Example, Excitable Boy, Lawyers Guns & Money, Charlie’s Medicine
      The Road Goes On Forever by Robert Earl Keen
      Tons of murder songs in traditional mountain music, Banks of the Ohio
      Goodness, I am missing a lot of others that don’t immediately come to mind

    18. Grurray Says:

      Here’s a somewhat more modern take. Neil Young’s diatribe about the crime wave, Crime In The City (Sixty To Zero Part 1).

      It’s funny. I guess I knew the criminal/outlaw motif was a pretty popular theme in music but never realized the extent of that popularity until I started thinking about it.

    19. Gringo Says:

      Kinky Friedman sings Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd

      Elvis sings Jailhouse Rock

      Kimmie Rhodes: Contrabandista with Willie

      Arlo Guthrie: Coming into Los Angeles

      Odetta sings Midnight Special

      While there are multiple versions of these songs, I am using the first one I heard- with the exception of Kimmie Rhodes, as her original recording of Contrabandista is not on YouTube.

    20. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      @ Bill Brandt – Mack The Knife was originally in German, in Kurt Weil’s “The Threepenny Opera,” which was an updating of the early 18th C “The Beggar’s Opera.” (Which also has some good songs, though none covered by Bobby Darin.) The only other recognisable song from Threepenny is Pirate Jenny, sometimes called The Black Frieghter. I like the Steeleye Span version of that best. Also sort of a crime/outlaw song, if you squint a bit.

    21. Gringo Says:

      Not all are golden oldies:
      Al Doane: The Wreck Called Hillary Clinton

      Mark Kaye: Hillary Clinton song

    22. OBloodyHell Says:

      Two Gallant
      Las Cruces Jail

    23. David Foster Says:

      It does seem to be easier to write songs about criminals than about non-criminals, or maybe there just isn’t a market for them. I don’t think anybody ever wrote a song about Bill Pogue and Conley Elms, the two game wardens who were killed by Claude Dallas:

      Interesting that Bill Pogue shared Dallas’s fascination with the Old West, but made very different life choices.

    24. Jonathan Says:

      Nobody wrote a song about Bill Gates or Colin Powell either. Dysfunctional people are more entertaining.

    25. Rich Rostrom Says:

      The Irish have quite a few:

      “Whiskey in the Jar”, for instance.


      “The Wild Colonial Boy”.

    26. torrance Says:

      Steely Dan – Don’t take me Alive. Good for washing out the eardrums after that Steve Miller abomination comes on

    27. Anonymous Says:

      Got to agree with the comment on the Steve Miller tune. We have a “classic rock” station here that plays it often. It is an ear weg. Since it is the only station I can get in my shop, I am subjected to it too often.


    28. John Says:

      Steve Earle: Copperhead Road

      I think Springsteen’s Jungleland and Meeting Across the River have at least implied crimes.

      Bad Company? (The title track from the eponymous album…)

      Cowboy Junkies: Black Eyed Man

      Austin Lounge Lizards’ Saguaro

      Lots of references to illegal drugs in Rock and Jazz, but mostly I don’t think those count in the way you mean…