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?
On June 10, 1692, Bridget Bishop became the first person hanged in Salem, Massachusetts after being accused of being a witch. By the end of the year, a total of nineteen innocent men and women had been hanged and one man had been pressed to death as a result of the Salem witch trials.
Hysteria around accusations of witchcraft were not unique to Salem and occurred around the world, but the Salem executions remain prominent in America’s history. There are various theories about the conditions and rivalries that led to the accusations of witchcraft and the government’s condoning of the executions.
Although the U.S. does not hang people for being witches today, the Salem witch trials are still invoked for modern day forms of hysteria. Playwright Arthur Miller used a dramatic interpretation of the Salem witch trials to comment on the witch-hunting of his own time. His play The Crucible opened in 1953, and this fictionalized version of the Salem witch trials provided a commentary on the American government’s hunt for communists during Miller’s time.
Director Nicholas Hytner turned Miller’s play into a movie in 1996. The film version of The Crucible stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, and Joan Allen.
At the time of the movie’s release, Miller wrote an essay in The New Yorker, “Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible.'” In the article, he explained that when he wrote the play over the course of a year, he also thought of other recent events of national insanity, like the Nazis in Germany. He also noted that the play continued to be relevant to later events in Joseph Stalin’s Russia, Mao Zedong’s China, and Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.
In his essay, Miller further explained, “below its concerns with justice the play evokes a lethal brew of illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural, and political manipulation.” The play remains relevant as a reminder to stand up against hysteria and tyranny.
A few years before the release of the film version of The Crucible, similar concerns about justice, illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural, and political manipulation arose in the prosecution of the West Memphis 3. That case involved three young men convicted of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. In the case, where some evoked parallels with the Salem with trials, the three accused eventually were released, helped by documentaries that created supporters for their innocence.
One of the three young men in the West Memphis 3 case who was sentenced to death, Damien Echols, dressed and believed differently than others in the Arkansas community. Many believed his differences contributed to the reason he was prosecuted and sentenced to death.
After Echols was released from prison, he moved to Salem, Massachusetts. He explained, “Due to its history, Salem’s like a mecca for people in any form of alternative spirituality.”
A recent movie, Devil’s Knot (2013), tells the story of the West Memphis 3 in a dramatic retelling. That film, by chance or intent, was released on DVD in 2014 on the June 10 Salem anniversary.
Devil’s Knot, which stars Colin Firth and Reese Withspoon, is a decent introduction to the West Memphis 3 case and features a strong performance by Witherspoon, but the movie may try to do too much. And it is hard to beat the outstanding Paradise Lost documentaries.
The three documentaries are worth seeking out (the first of which currently is on YouTube), although viewers should be prepared that the films evoke strong emotions in recounting the horrible murders and problematic justice system. Similarly, the 1996 movie version of The Crucible features fine acting and remains a powerful reminder that injustice is not confined to one time period.
Bridget Bishop was around sixty years old when she went to the gallows. But we do not know what she thought as the executioner put a noose around her neck this week in 1692.
Perhaps the residents of Salem failed to stop the execution because of their own fears. Perhaps they would not risk their own lives for someone who was “different” because she had been married three times, frequented taverns, and did not dress like other Puritans. But I wish Ms. Bishop could have known that she and the other condemned “witches” would not be forgotten, and that they continue to challenge us and make us question our beliefs more than three hundred years later.
Bridget Bishop picture via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.
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.