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 thoughts on “Crimesongs”

  1. 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”

  2. 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.

  3. David

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

  4. “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


  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. @ 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.

  8. 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.

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

  10. The Irish have quite a few:

    “Whiskey in the Jar”, for instance.


    “The Wild Colonial Boy”.

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

  12. 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.


  13. 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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