Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One” & Justice Stevens

Not long after he retired, former United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was in the news for writing a book review, followed by an appearance on 60 Minutes. The attention on Justice Stevens and his changing views on capital punishment remind me of Steve Earle’s haunting song, “Ellis Unit One.”

In several appearances after he retired, Justice Stevens described how he changed his mind about the death penalty. Over time, he came to conclude, as the New York Times summarized, that the Supreme Court has “created a system of capital punishment that is shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria.”


Justice Stevens was on the Supreme Court in 1976 when the Court, in effect, established the modern death penalty.  In 1972, the Court held that the nation’s death penalty laws violated the constitution, but in 1976 the Court upheld new death penalty laws. In those cases and in cases throughout the decades, Justice Stevens voted to uphold the constitutionality of the death penalty. But in his final few years on the Supreme Court, he came to conclude that the death penalty system was unfair and constituted a pointless taking of life that does not serve society.

At the time, Justice Stevens joined two other U.S. Supreme Court Justices who voted to uphold the death penalty in 1976 but by the end of their careers had changed their minds: Justices Harry Blackmun and Justice Lewis Powell.  More often than one might guess, over time, some who advocated for and implemented the nation’s death penalty — judges, prosecutors, police officers, wardens, legislators, executioners — eventually conclude that the punishment is unfair, racist, useless, risks executing innocent defendants, and that society would be better off replacing the death penalty with life in prison.

The news about Justice Stevens reminded me of a song that tells one of these stories, Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One,” which appeared on the soundtrack for the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking and is one of the most moving songs ever written about the death penalty.  The song is told from the perspective of a prison guard.  The guard describes getting transferred to death row at Ellis Unit One, the Texas prison unit that housed condemned prisoners at the time the song was written.

The narrator does not say what he thinks about the death penalty. Steve Earle’s genius here is to understand that the description is enough.

Well, I’ve seen ‘em fight like lions, boys
I’ve seen ’em go like lambs
And I’ve helped to drag ‘em when they could not stand.
And I’ve heard their mamas cryin’ when they heard that big door slam
And I’ve seen the victim’s family holdin’ hands.

Many of the judges who have condemned people to death may have had dreams similar to the one described in “Ellis Unit One”: “Last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest / And something cold and black pullin’ through my lungs.” Having such a heavy responsibility may haunt one’s dreams, even if the judge is confident in the choice made. Similar dreadful dreams may have led Justices Stevens, Blackmun, and Powell to renounce their earlier decisions.

When we read about a horrible crime and have the normal initial human reaction to want the perpetrator killed, we often ignore the death penalty system’s toll on the many people it touches, including the guards, the wardens, the judges, the lawyers, the families of the victim, and the families of the condemned.  Whether or not we agree with Justice Stevens, one must acknowledge the costs caused by the continuing use of capital punishment.  While Justice Stevens’s change of heart reveals the legal and practical issues surrounding the death penalty, Steve Earle’s poetic song exposes some of the human toll.

Bonus Song Information: The reference to “the Walls” in the song is to the nickname for the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas, about twelve miles away from Ellis Unit.  It is where the Texas inmates are executed.

Bonus Alternate Versions Information:  In addition to the soundtrack version of the song, Earle has another outstanding version that is a demo with The Fairfield Four providing background singing. The Fairfield Four version appeared on the EP Johnny Too Bad and Earle’s collection of random songs from various side projects, Sidetracks. The latter appears to be available as an import, and the former seems hard to find and overpriced for an EP, but you may hear a clip with the Fairfield Four through the “Johnny Too Bad” link.  This version is worth seeking out.  Finally, a live version of the song is on Steve Earle’s Live At Montreux 2005 album.

One of Cleveland’s favorite son performers, Michael Stanley, also recorded a version of the song. As a former Clevelander I have the required fondness for MSB, but his version is inferior to Earle’s. As his version progresses, he adds instruments and background singers to the point I thought he was going to break into a full-blown uplifting rock song with a last-minute stay of execution. Still, Stanley has good taste in choosing to cover such a great song, and perhaps it merely suffers by comparison to Steve Earle’s excellent versions. And some may prefer Stanley’s voice and his cover. Leave a comment to let me know what version you like.

Has anyone ever started talking about a Supreme Court Justice and ended up talking about Michael Stanley?

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    Today in History: John Brown’s Body

    On the morning of December 2 in 1859, the abolitionist John Brown was hanged in Virginia for treason and for inciting a slave insurrection.

    That fall, Brown led 21 men on a raid of Harpers Ferry Armory in what is now West Virginia with the hope that others would join and there would be a slave uprising. That day, a baggage master who was a free black man became the first man killed by Brown’s group in their attempt to free the nation’s slaves.

    Brown was an interesting person. Assessments indicate he was part demented and part prophet, part terrorist and part patriot, part genius and part failure, part hero and part villain, part powerful and part powerless. How do you classify a man who was so right in his cause? He died for what he believed, and he was right in his goal. As for his means . . . ?

    Where John Brown's Body lies a'mouldering.

    The first shots fired at Harpers Ferry were the first shots of the Civil War. There were many connections between Brown and the upcoming war. At Harpers Ferry, Colonel Robert E. Lee led the U.S soldiers against Brown, and an army lieutenant named J.E.B. Stuart first talked to the raiders in negotiation attempts. In the audience for Brown’s December execution were John Wilkes Booth and Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who less than two years later would earn the nickname “Stonewall” on the battlefield.

    Then, there is the song. Although the Pete Seeger version is more famous, here is an older version of “John Brown’s Body” by J.W. Myers in 1913. According to some accounts, the song started out as a fun song created by soldiers singing about a comrade named “John Brown,” and when others heard the song they assumed it was about John Brown the abolitionist and added verses to that effect. Then, of course, Julia Ward Howe created new lyrics for the music to create another song for the Union that you know from school: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

    John Brown’s Body by J.W. Myers

    Photos: John Brown (public domain); John Brown’s Grave (by Chimesfreedom)

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    Lonely Street: The Sad Story Behind “Heartbreak Hotel”

    On December 9, 1955, Elvis Presley performed “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time, although he would not record the song until a month later in January 1956. The song would eventually become a hit, but many listeners did not know that the song came from a tragic story.

    “It’s gonna be my first hit.”

    According to Ernst Jorgensen’s Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, the performance on Dec. 9 was at a club near Swifton, Arkansas before a full house of 250 people. The 20-year-old Elvis was already a regional star but he had yet to appear on national television. Having just moved from Sun Records to RCA, he sensed he was on the brink of something big.

    That night in the Arkansas club, he played the songs he’d recorded for Sun and a few covers.  Then, he introduced the new song, “I”ve got this brand new song and it’s gonna be my first hit.”

    He was right. “Heartbreak Hotel” became Elvis Presley’s first Gold Record, selling more than a million copies.  Rolling Stone Magazine has it listed as one of the greatest fifty songs of all-time. And when then presidential candidate Bill Clinton made his famous appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, he chose “Heartbreak Hotel” to play on his sax.

    There’s something joyous about the way the song sounds, despite its sad lyrics.  But there’s an even darker story underneath the inspiration for the song.

    The Suicide That Inspired “Heartbreak Hotel”

    Mae Boren Axton wrote the lyrics for “Heartbreak Hotel.” At the time, she was a schoolteacher and songwriter who would later be the mother of country singer and actor Hoyt Axton. The son would grow up to star in Gremlins and write “Joy the the World” (“Jeremiah was a bullfrog…”) as well as another song that Elvis would later sing, “Never Been to Spain.”

    One day in 1955, Mae Axton and her friend Tommy Durden read a story in the Miami Herald about a man who had committed suicide.  The man had no identification, and he only left a note with a few words on it: “I walk a lonely street.”

    Axton, inspired by the note, sat down and wrote the lyrics to “Heartbreak Hotel,” locating the hotel of heartbreak on the street where the man walked.  Tommy Durden wrote the music, and the song was complete in only one hour.

    Nobody remembers the name or the life of the unfortunate man who wrote the suicide note.  And of course, he never got to see that his final act of great agony led to poetry — and to millions of people screaming joyously and dancing to his final words of despair.

    I bet he would have liked to have seen it.

    And that is the story behind the song.

    [July 2015 Update: See the comments below about a forthcoming book featuring new research on the story behind “Heartbreak Hotel.”]

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    Bob Dylan and the Fine Line Between Love and Hate

    The two Bob Dylan songs below, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Idiot Wind,” show a drastic range of human emotions.  Like several of Dylan’s songs, these two were inspired by his first wife, Sara Lownds, who is also the mother of Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers.  The songs reflect the vast divide between being in love and being angry at one you once loved.

    The first is “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” released as the final song on Blonde on Blonde in 1966, early in his 1965-1977 marriage to Lownds.  (“Lowlands”/Lownds, get it?)  The song is used to great effect in the recent movie “about” Bob Dylan, I’m Not There.  Although the lyrics are not a clear narrative, the poetry and the music convey pure affection:  “With your silhouette when the sunlight dims / Into your eyes where the moonlight swims  / And your match-book songs and your gypsy hymns.”

    The second song, is “Idiot Wind,” written almost a decade later in 1974 and released on Blood on the Tracks as the Dylan-Lownds relationship was crumbling.  The performance below from the 1976 Rolling Thunder Tour is amazing for its intensity and venom.  It’s Bob Dylan punk.  To his surprise, Sara showed up at the concert, and he is performing it for her.  You can see what he is feeling.  This blog post title’s reference to “hate” is not really accurate, as I should describe it more as pain and anguish covered to seem like anger.  But one may only guess her feelings hearing this song.

    Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
    From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.
    Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
    You’re an idiot, babe.
    It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

    There is some debate about how much of the song is really about Lownds and how much is about other things going on in Dylan’s life at the time.  Dylan being Dylan, he leaves it ambiguous, as it is for the artist to let the listeners hear for themselves.  One of the brilliant touches is the final chorus where the angry finger-pointing evolves into a more understanding and humble “we’re idiots, babe. . . .”    That line sounds more convincing in a slower and sadder version of the song he initially recorded for Blood on the Tracks before rerecording the song and replacing it with the angrier version that ended up on the album.  That alternate version is worth seeking out.  It is available on the first official “Bootleg” series  his record label released in 1991, and it is also available on various unofficial bootlegs of the New York City Sessions version of Blood on the Tracks.

    Below is the angry live performance during the Rolling Thunder Tour with Lownds in the audience.  The performance, which is also available on the Hard Rain live album, is worth seeking out. If you’ve ever been angry at someone, put it on full screen and crank it up loud.

    Bonus: The alternate slower and sadder version of “Idiot Wind” from the New York Sessions may be heard here.

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    Charley Patton: Spoonful Blues

    It’s difficult for the modern listener to fully appreciate what Charley Patton’s music must have meant to people who lived when it was made.  First is the problem of time.  Although we can connect to music before our time, there’s something different between being there in the moment and listening through the earpiece of time.  A young kid who today hears Elvis Presley for the first time might enjoy the music, but can the music really have the kind of meaning it must have had for a listener in 1954 hearing him for the first time?

    Charley Patton, whose birth date is unknown and who died on died April 28, 1934, is often called “The King of the Delta Blues.” He was a huge star in the South in the late 1920’s.  He’d pack any place he played, and audiences loved him.  By all accounts the 135-lb and 5-foot-5-inch man was a great guitar player and entertainer.  He was a big influence on younger blues men who would become legends themselves, like Robert Johnson and Son House.

    Another reason it’s hard for us to fully appreciate the value of his music is that there are a limited number of his songs preserved for us.  And those songs we can hear are poor quality copies of heavily played and scratched 78 rpm records.  Paramount, the recording company that made his records in 1929 and 1930 went out of business and sold the metal masters of the records as scrap metal.  The masters of the recordings of the popular and influential Patton ended up lining chicken coops.  Too bad he was born before the time when anyone can post anything on YouTube.

    Here’s one of his songs from one of the copies of those scratched up records.  Don’t worry if you can’t pick out the words in the rambling song about cocaine addiction.  Just feel the music.  Try your best to close your eyes, sway your body, and hear the music as it was heard for the first time . . . when the haunting music meant the world to those who heard it.

    Photo via. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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