The Nebraska unicameral legislature recently voted to abolish the death penalty, following a number of states that have come to realize that capital punishment is ineffective and a waste of resources. Although Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed the action, the legislature overrode his veto, making Nebraska the eighteenth state (in addition to the District of Columbia) that does not sentence human beings to death. According to a recent book on the history of the death penalty, states that have stopped sentencing people to death in recent years also include Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Maryland.
One of the great songs about the death penalty is Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” which Springsteen based on Terrence Malick’s movie Badlands, which was loosely based on the real-life case of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. The song, in the voice of the condemned, offers no straightforward judgement on the death penalty, a topic Springsteen would address years later in his song “Dead Man Walking.”
But by taking the voice of the condemned man, Springsteen challenges us to find some humanity in the man. By the time the singer/condemned tries to explain why he did the horrific things he did, all he can come up with is “I guess there is just a meanness in this world.” Taken on its face, one might find little sympathy for the killer. But the way Springsteen sings the words, you believe that the condemned is not a personification of evil, but was someone is unable to understand the world because he has been on the other end of that meanness his whole life too.
Thus, it is not surprising that in the real world, Bruce Springsteen is opposed to capital punishment. Below, following an introduction about how the album Nebraska focuses on the downtrodden, Springsteen performs the song “Nebraska” on a 12-string guitar with harmonica from a benefit show in Los Angeles in November 1990.
The real Starkweather grew up with a birth defect and a speech impediment, and he was a slow learner. Nebraska executed Charles Starkweather in the electric chair, just like in Springsteen’s song, on June 25, 1959 at the age of 20. The young teenaged girl who went with him on the murder spree did not die in his lap and was eventually paroled in 1976 and lives in Michigan, which is the first state in the United States to abolish capital punishment.
On August 23, 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair. The execution of the Italian-born anarchists drew worldwide protests from people who believed the two men were innocent of the murder charges against them. Many today still debate whether or not the two were guilty of the crime, but most agree that anti-immigrant sentiment and other factors affected the fairness of their trial.
The saga of Sacco and Vanzetti has inspired various forms of art, including songs. Chimesfreedom previously addressed the songs that Woody Guthrie wrote about the case. Additionally, folksinger Charlie King wrote an excellent song about the case called “Two Good Arms,” and I have seen him perform it on several occasions. King, who grew up in Massachusetts and has been performing for fifty years, is not as well known as he should be. But artists like Pete Seeger have recognized his talent.
While there does not seem to be a video of King singing “Two Good Arms,” here is Holly Near covering his song at the 1987 Philadelphia Folk Festival. And you may hear King’s original version on his webpage.
King took much of the lyrics of “Two Good Arms” directly from the speech that Vanzetti made at his sentencing. It is interesting how he recognized the poetry in Vanzetti’s own words, even as the native Italian speaker presented his plea in English: “That I am not only innocent of these two crimes, but in all my life I have never stolen and I have never killed and I have never spilled blood. . . . Not only am I innocent of these two crimes, not only in all my life I have never stolen, never killed, never spilled blood, but I have struggled all my life, since I began to reason, to eliminate crime from the earth. Everybody that knows these two arms knows very well that I did not need to go into the streets and kill a man or try to take money. I can live by my two hands and live well.”
The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti remains relevant today, as many debate whether states have executed innocent people in recent years. A new book, The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, recounts how Texas may have executed an innocent man when it executed Carlos DeLuna. Others claim that other executed men like Cameron Todd Willingham were innocent.
It is difficult to prove innocence to everyone’s satisfaction after someone has been executed, but these and other cases certainly raise questions about the justice system, as any system run by humans is bound to make mistakes at some point. Thus, one may wonder whether society should execute people rather than holding them in prison. These ongoing risks make it important that we answer the opening question of Charlie King’s song with an affirmation that we all will remember past injustices and work to prevent them in the future.
Photo of Vanzetti (left) and Sacco (right) via public domain.
On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair for conspiracy to commit espionage, for allegedly passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Many argued that the two were innocent and not given a fair trial in the face of anti-Soviet paranoia at the time.
Dylan, not surprisingly, takes the position that a societal injustice occurred, putting the case in the context of its time period: “Someone says the fifties was the age of great romance / I say that’s just a lie, it was when fear had you in a trance.” Thus, he concludes that the Rosenbergs were not given a fair trial.
Now that they are gone, you know, the truth it can be told; They were sacrificial lambs in the market place sold — Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel
Today, most conclude that Julius had some involvement in the passing of information to the Soviets, although many also debate whether the information was significant. Still, a large number of people continue to maintain that Ethel was innocent. Either way, the prejudices of the times affected the fairness of the trial. And the arguments about the use of the death penalty against innocent defendants continues in the U.S. to this day.
As for Dylan’s song, around the Internet many fans of the song argue that Dylan should have included it on the album. What do you think?
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.
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.
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.
For these and other reasons, in recent years Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York also have stopped using capital punishment. Other state legislatures are considering bills to abolish the death penalty.
“Green, Green Grass of Home” and Its Twist Ending
Thinking about Maryland’s death penalty, I remembered a hit song from the 1960s called “Green, Green Grass of Home.” Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr. wrote “Green, Green Grass of Home,” which is probably his biggest hit song along with Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (he also co-wrote the George Jones song “He Stopped Loving Her Today”).
“Green, Green Grass of Home” belongs in a unique group of songs that have a twist ending. The song begins with the singer talking about a trip home, but in the last verse, we learn that it was all a dream. Although there is no specific reference to the death penalty or executions, the verse makes clear that the singer will die at the hands of the state in the morning. Then I awake and look around me, At the four gray walls that surround me, And I realize that I was only dreaming, For there’s a guard and a sad old padre, Arm in arm we’ll walk at daybreak, And at last I’ll touch the green green grass of home.
Putnam performs a clever sleight of hand in the song. He gets us to see the singer as a human being, one with feelings we can relate to, because everyone has been homesick. Only then does he let us know that the singer is on death row. Had the song begun by telling us the singer was condemned, we would have seen him in a different light and judged him as something other than human. But like Steve Earle’s “Over Yonder,” the song “Green, Green Grass of Home” lets us see the humanity even in the worst of us, which is pretty cool.
But Porter Wagoner was the first one to have a hit with “Green, Green Grass of Home” in 1965. Check out this performance and note the subtle special effects where the prison bar shadows appear at the end.
Tom Jones Version
The next year in 1966, Tom Jones had a hit with the song. His version went to number 1 on the U.K. charts.
This TV rendition of the song goes for a less subtle approach than the Porter Wagoner shadows. Here, Tom Jones sings from a jail cell. The setting of the song, though, kind of spoils the surprise ending.
Jerry Lee Lewis Version
Tom Jones was inspired to record “Green, Green Grass of Home” after hearing it on Jerry Lee Lewis’s 1965 albumCountry Songs for City Folk. While it is easy to remember Lewis’s place in rock and roll history, sometimes his excellent country work is overlooked.
Here is Lewis’s version.
Joan Baez Version
Joan Baez gives a unique version by being one of the rare woman’s voices to tackle the song. It is appropriate because there currently are approximately sixty women on death rows around the country.
Baez does a nice job in this performance from The Smothers Brothers Show.
Finally, in 2006, Lewis and Jones performed “Green, Green Grass of Home” together. While the lyrics of the song constitute a soliloquy that does not lend itself to being a duet, it was still cool to see the great Tom Jones singing with the legend who inspired him to record one of his biggest hits. [October 2014 Update: Unfortunately, the video of the duet is no longer available on YouTube.]
Capital Punishment After “Green, Green Grass of Home”
One may only speculate about the impact of the song on society or society’s impact on the song. But in 1965-1966 when the song was a big hit for Porter Wagoner in the U.S. and for Tom Jones in the U.K., the death penalty was at low levels of popularity in those countries.
Great Britain would abolish the death penalty on a trial basis in 1965 and abolish it permanently in 1969. In the U.S., executions ground to a halt in the late 1960s as courts considered court challenges to the U.S. death penalty.
Within a decade, after states passed new laws, the U.S. death penalty machine began chugging along in the late 1970s, even as other countries continued to abolish capital punishment. But more recently, since the turn of the century, several states have joined the other states and countries that have decided the death penalty is unnecessary, uncivilized, and wasteful of resources.
Maryland has now joined those civilized states and countries. The end of the death penalty, unlike “Green, Green Grass of Home,” is not a dream.
What is your favorite version of “Green, Green Grass of Home”? Leave your two cents in the comments.