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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    Missed Movies: Solitary Man

    There are two types of good movies.  First, there is the movie that you enjoy while you watch it and then never really think about again — until you are flipping TV channels and come across it and think, “Oh yeah, this was good.”  Second, there is the movie that you continue to ponder long after you watch it. The movie may stay with you for any number of reasons.  Maybe a character reminded you of someone. Maybe the movie puzzled you in a good way. Maybe there was a scene you cannot stop thinking about.

    The 2009 movie Solitary Man falls into the latter category for me. The movie features one of Michael Douglas’s great acting roles and is worth it for that alone.  Douglas plays a womanizer and former car dealership owner who sees many of his bad decisions catch up to him. You may not like or admire the character, but he comes across as a real person, not a caricature, and you most likely will want to see what happens next.

    Solitary Man has an excellent cast, including Susan Sarandon and Jesse Eisenberg (recently in The Social Network).  The scenes between Douglas and Danny DeVito are excellent in a way that may only be possible when played by two old friends portraying two old friends.  In the DVD extras, Jenna Fischer (who you might know from The Office) recalls how when she read the script before knowing the cast, she could only think of Michael Douglas in the lead role.  Douglas does such a great job, there is only one other person I could imagine in the role.  As he has aged, Douglas reminds me more and more of his father, Kirk Douglas, who I might also imagine here as Ben Kalmen.

    [I am not giving away much about the ending, but if you plan to see the movie and do not want to know more about it, skip this paragraph.]  The ending of Solitary Man is one reason I keep thinking about the film.  The end is not an exciting explanation point, but more of a small question mark.  I was reminded of a Tom Hanks movie where a lot of people did not like the ending, but I did.  Here, the ending seemed perfect and true to the movie and the character.  If you have seen Solitary Man, you may read more of a discussion of the ending in this interview with the writer/directors.

    Like many movies in my Movies You Might Have Missed series, you should not watch Solitary Man expecting it to be one of the great movies of all time, but it is a small, entertaining, and thoughtful movie that you might enjoy.  I’m surprised that the movie did not get the attention that it deserved.  Some reviews at the time praised the movie as a smaller version of Douglas’s fine work as an aging English professor in Wonder Boys, because of some similarities between the characters.  But the movies are very different, so you should not be expecting Wonder Boys II.

    While Douglas’s Wonder Boys character had more of a slapstick element, Solitary Man seems more grounded in day-to-day reality.  There are moments of humor, but Douglas creates a real character of flesh and blood.  And, even though you may not admire the character, you will see flashes of humanity and real life here. And that is what creates movies you think about long after the screen goes dark.

    Missed Movies is our series on very good movies that many people did not see when first released.

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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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    Missed Movies: Amelia

    If you avoided the movie Amelia (2009) in the theater because of the bad reviews, you might want to check it out on DVD/Blu Ray/HBO.  The movie about Amelia Earhart may not be a great movie, but it is an entertaining story about one of the most interesting people from the early twentieth century.

    I may have a lower standard for biography movies than fictional movies because biopics have the added bonus of teaching me about events that actually happened while I also realize that the director and writer are restrained by true-life events.  For example, because we don’t have the information, the movie rightfully avoids showing the actual crash that ended Earhart’s life in her 1937 attempt to circle the world, although it follows her up until the moment radio contact was lost.  A fictional story would have been able to dramatize the crash.  Further, biopics often are restrained to a certain formula to try to cover a large number of years in a person’s life and to make it a cohesive story.  That’s one of the reasons that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was able to do such a funny send-up of otherwise excellent biopics like Ray and Walk the Line.

    Amelia Earhart’s life was so ground-breaking it’s difficult to convey how important she was for aviation and women’s rights in less than two hours.  But the movie does a good job in telling the story, with excellent acting from Hillary Swank as Earhart and Richard Gere as her husband, George Putnam.

    One small piece of history I learned was that when Gore Vidal was a child, he knew Amelia Earhart because his father had a relationship with her.  Gore has seen a lot of American history.

    Earhart was an amazing person and aviation pioneer:  first woman across the Atlantic as part of a crew in 1928, first woman and second person to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932, first person to fly solo across the Pacific between Hawaii and California, as well as a leadership role in several organizations promoting aviation.  The movie does a decent job of telling the story, and it’s worth a rental.

    Bonus History Tidbit:  Who was the second person to fly an airplane non-stop across the Atlantic after Lindbergh?  Clarence Chamberlin, although he carried a passenger.  He was in the competition for the Orteig Prize money with Charles Lindbergh and others to be the first to fly an airplane across the Atlantic.  He would have beaten Lindbergh, but a former navigator sued him and kept him grounded for awhile, which allowed Lindbergh to beat Chamberlin.

    Chamberlin flew across the Atlantic on June 4-6, 1927.  Lindbergh made his flight on May 20-21, 1927, winning by just two weeks.  Had Chamberlin beaten Lindbergh, would Lindbergh still have been the national hero?  It’s possible, as his was the first solo flight, but the media focus was on on being the first non-stop flight and winning the $25,000 Orteig prize, and Chamberlin would have won the prize if he were first.  If Chamberlin had been the national hero, would that have spared Lindbergh the tragedy of his son being kidnapped and killed?  Would it have spared America of seeing its national hero accused of being pro-Nazi?  Few have heard of Chamberlin because Lindbergh beat him, and Chamberlin may have been the lucky one after all.

    Missed Movies is our series on very good movies that many people did not see when first released.

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    Amelia