Connecticut’s Hangman and Johnny Cash’s Last Song

With Governor Dannel Malloy’s signature Wednesday, Connecticut became the fifth state in five years to abolish the death penalty. Connecticut makes seventeen states that do not have capital punishment, along with the District of Columbia, as more states are realizing that the death penalty is expensive, unfair, arbitrary, unnecessary, and risks executing the innocent. Similarly, recently the man who wrote California’s death penalty law and the man who led the drive for that state to adopt capital punishment have changed their position and said that life without parole is a better option than the death penalty. For various reasons, the civilizing trend around the country is leading to more states abolishing the death penalty.

Capital punishment is still used as a political issue, though. Even as Connecticut abolished the death penalty for future cases, it did not overturn the death sentences of the few people currently on death row in the state. So, they may still face the executioner years down the road.

Speaking of executioners, in this video, Marty Stuart tells about his final meeting with Johnny Cash and how Cash helped him write the song, “Hangman,” which later appeared on Stuart’s album, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions (2010). Stuart was inspired to start writing the song after visiting Folsom Prison and seeing where Cash had performed for the inmates. While working on the song, he told Cash about the song, and Cash gave Stuart some help. As Stuart explains before he performs the song in the video below, it was probably the last song Cash helped write four days before he passed away on September 12, 2003.

The song begins with the singer talking about killing another man today, “I’ve lost count at thirty, and I’ve grown too numb to grieve.” After he tells how alcohol and dope helps him get by, the chorus comes in to reveal the twist. The song is not about a serial killer but the hangman.

Hangman, Hangman,
That’s my stock and trade.
Hangman, Hangman,
Sending bad men to their grave.
But who killed who? I ask myself,
Time and time again.
God have mercy on the soul,
Of this Hangman.

In the video, Stuart tells how Johnny Cash helped him with the chorus and the poetic line, “But who killed who? I ask myself.” The line, and the song evoke the concerns of the Connecticut legislature. Both the legislature and Gov. Malloy realized that the death penalty is not about what we do to convicted murderers. Capital punishment is about what it does to us when our government kills people already in prison for the rest of their lives. Connecticut is saving the hangman, not the prisoners.

What do you think of “Hangman”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    3 thoughts on “Connecticut’s Hangman and Johnny Cash’s Last Song”

    1. Thanks for posting this. Johnny’s lyrics are still giving me chills postmortem. The Man Comes Around is such a favorite of mine and still in a regular piece of my music rotation. I can hear this as a bonus track on a ‘Deluxe Edition’ that are so popular these days. It would fit right in.

      1. The Man Comes Around is great. It is cool that new discoveries are still coming from Johnny. Thanks for the comment!

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