Inside Llewyn Davis opens with one of the film’s best musical moments. The camera simply focuses on the title character, played by Oscar Isaac, singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Cafe. Isaac’s performance of the song is mesmerizing. He immediately draws the viewer into the time and setting of the movie.
Hang me, Oh hang me, and I’ll be dead and gone;
Hang me, Oh hang me, I’ll be dead and gone;
Wouldn’t mind the hangin’, but the layin’ in the grave so long;
Poor boy, I been all around this world.
The song stayed with me long after the movie ended. One might argue that no other performance in the film matches it. Check out Isaac’s opening performance from Inside Llewyn Davis.
Versions and Sources of “Hang Me”
The movie performance made me curious to find out more about the song. The Coen Brothers movie is loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk. So the obvious first step for anyone interested in the film is to check out Van Ronk’s version of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.”
Van Ronk’s version is a wonderful recording and worth tracking down. Van Ronk’s ex-wife Terri Thai wrote in The Village Voice that one of the best things about the movie is that it will lead people to check out Van Ronk’s music.
You may find Van Ronk’s version of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” on the CD Inside Dave Van Ronk. Check it out below.
Van Ronk did not write the song. If you look for further information, many places just list it as “traditional.” The song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” however, has a long history that takes a number of twists and turns.
There are different variations on the song with different titles. These title variations include “I’ve Been All Around This World,” “The Gambler,” “My Father Was a Gambler,” and “The New Railroad.” Sometimes, the song is called “Cape Girardeau,” from the song’s line “I been all around Cape Girardeau.” Another version specifies the location of the singer’s last stand in “Up On The Blue Ridge Mountains.”
The Grateful Dead used the variation “I’ve Been All Around This World.” You may watch the band sing the song in a 1980 New Year’s Eve performance at the Oakland Auditorium.
A Grateful Dead fansite notes that the origin of the song is somewhat unclear. The first commercial recorded version of the song appears to be a 1946 single by Grandpa Jones, who later starred on Hee-Haw. But the song goes back further to a 1937 Library of Congress field recording.
A trip to the Library of Congress website leads to information about this first known recording of the song. That version of “I’ve Been All Around This World” (AFS 1531) is by Justis Begley. Alan and Elizabeth Lomax recorded Begley singing the song at Hazard, Kentucky in October 1937.
Interestingly, Begley, the man who made the first recording of this song about a man about to be hanged, served as the sheriff of Hazard. You may hear another Sheriff Begley recording on YouTube, “Run Banjo.”
Begley’s version of “I’ve Been All Around This World” is below courtesy of archive.org and thanks to Stephen Winick at the American Folklife Center for the link. At the end of the song, you can hear the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax referring to Begley as the “composer” of the song.
The line “hang me” probably derived from the American ballad “My Father Was a Gambler.” That song is about an unnamed murderer who was hanged in the 1870s. Like many other versions, the narrator in “My Father Was a Gambler” claims he has been all around the world as he states, “hang me, oh hang me, I’ll be dead and gone.”
Below is a YouTube video of someone playing “My Father Was a Gambler.” The song title reflects a paternal gambler theme also found in “House of the Rising Sun” (“My father was a gamblin’ man / Down in New Orleans.”). A gambling father also appears in the Allman Brothers’ song “Ramblin’ Man” (“My father was a gambler down in Georgia”).
What Hanged Man Inspired the Song?
Unfortunately, sources do not disclose the name of the condemned man or men who inspired the various versions of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The book Outlaw Ballads, Legends & Lore (1996) by Wayne Erbsen claims that the song was inspired by a man hanged in Fort Smith, Arkansas. That location is mentioned in some versions of the song.
Apparently the hanged man’s name has been lost to history. But the book claims that the execution occurred sometime during the decade of the 1870s. The author notes that the famous hanging judge Judge Isaac Charles Parker might have pronounced the sentence because he served as judge at that location during 1875-1896.
One may speculate further about the person who inspired “My Father Was a Gambler” and the “hang me” lyric. Examining a list of people executed in the Arkansas, one finds a large number of men hanged for murder in Arkansas in the 1870s. Most were black men or Native Americans (also illustrating the discriminatory way the death penalty is used).
If we try to narrow down the time period, the famous execution may have occurred sometime during 1873-1876. During that period, executions at Fort Smith were open to the general public. For these public executions, thousands of people could hear the condemned person’s last words.
But even if we narrow down the song’s inspiration to the years of public executions, it is still challenging to determine the name of the condemned man who inspired the “hang me” lyrics. For example, one may guess that the song could be about Sidney Wallace. As something of a folk hero, Wallace and his execution may have captured people’s imagination.
Or maybe the song is about Daniel Evans. He had connections in Missouri, which might have inspired the song’s reference to Cape Girardeau. Evans also joked about his execution, which might have made it memorable to a potential songwriter.
Or maybe the song is about either William Leach or William Whittington. Both of those men gave final speeches to a crowd blaming their vices and discussing their reform. Further, Leach’s lingering 10-minute hanging may have prompted extra attention. (See Roger Harold Tuller, “Let No Guilty Man Escape”: A Judicial Biography of “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker.)
A good guess is that John Childers may be the inspiration for the song because of his final request to be hanged. Childers spoke for sixteen minutes on the scaffold in 1873. Then his request came after the marshal made him an offer.
The marshal explained that he would spare Childers if the condemned man would reveal the names of his accomplices. Following his own code of honor not to rat on others, Childers swept his hand and asked, “Didn’t you say you were going to hang me?” After the marshal answered in the affirmative, Childers replied, “Then, why in hell don’t you!”
The Childers execution continued to attract attention after Childer’s death. Some claimed that Childers escaped. Others claimed that after Childer’s body fell through the trap, a bolt of lightening from a storm cloud struck the scaffold.
But we may only guess how much of the song we know today is based in fact. For example, the gambling reference in some versions may have been added as a morality lesson for listeners.
The Song and Hangings Today
Other versions may contain clues about the origins or may just feature additional details added long after the execution. One of the versions called “Working on the New Railroad” refers to railroad work. Here is Crooked Still performing their version of “Working on the New Railroad,” which also has some of the “hang me” lyrics.
There are a number of other good versions of “Hang Me” and the various variations, including ones by Amos Lee and Yonder Mountain String Band. Also, reportedly, Bob Dylan performed the song during the 1990 leg of his “Never Ending Tour.”
The Deep Dark Woods made a lively version of the song the title track of their 2008 album, Hang Me Oh Hang Me. I like what they do with the song. Check it out.
While hangings may seem a relic of the past, hanging is still an option for executions in Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington. In many ways, other current methods of killing prisoners also seem barbaric vestiges of the past.
States now have lethal injection as their primary method of execution. But such executions still are not civilized, as shown by a recent 26-minute execution in Ohio.
Whether or not we will ever see a song about lethal injection that rivals “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” may depend on how much longer some states continue to kill prisoners.
What is your favorite version of “Oh Hang Me”? Leave your two cents in the comments.
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(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)