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
28 thoughts on “Crimesongs”
I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole.
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
An interesting article about the real story behind the song Claude Dallas:
How about “Work Song”? Here‘s a version; this and others turn up quite often on my favourite radio station.
Sam Cooke: Working on the Chain Gang
Bruce Springsteen: Darlington County
Kingston Trio – Tom Dooley
The Clash – I Fought the Law
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”
Good one Henry. I forgot about Springsteen
Here is Ballad Of The Self Loading Pistol
There’s also Mack the Knife
…a useful reminder that there are other ways to kill people than with guns.
Not exactly crime, but I’ve always had the impression that Johnny’s on parole.
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.
Tom Jones, “The green green grass of home.”
MikeK…I heard the Green Green Grass of Home in Tokyo…sung in Japanese!
Isn’t Mac the knife about a shark? I’ve got a look at the lyrics again. It has been a while.
Johnny Cash, Highway Patrolman–one of my favorites
Check out the Surreal McCoys mashup of “Folsom Prison Blues” and Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
The result “Whole Lotta Folsom.” Surprisingly effective. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58SiGKT7_xs
“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
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
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.
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.
@ 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.
Not all are golden oldies:
Al Doane: The Wreck Called Hillary Clinton
Mark Kaye: Hillary Clinton song
Las Cruces Jail
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.
Nobody wrote a song about Bill Gates or Colin Powell either. Dysfunctional people are more entertaining.
The Irish have quite a few:
“Whiskey in the Jar”, for instance.
“The Wild Colonial Boy”.
Steely Dan – Don’t take me Alive. Good for washing out the eardrums after that Steve Miller abomination comes on
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.
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…
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