Winning the red shoe clearly carries prestige. Since my short story ‘The Teardrop Tattoos’ took out first prize at the Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards last month, I’ve done two radio interviews, written a blog post for Murderati, done an interview for the Sisters in Crime website and had Readings Books ask me to list my Top 10 Crime Fiction By Women in 2011.
This is the point where I admit I don’t always stop to reflect on what I am doing. I just do it. So when people ask me how writing short stories compares with writing books and what attracts me to both forms, I have to stop and think.
And when I did think about it, it struck me that secretly, like an actor who longs to direct, what I really wish I could do is write songs. To tell a whole story in three or four verses and a haunting refrain.
Last night I had the great fortune to see Cold Chisel in concert and while I dig Jimmy Barnes’ voice and Ian Moss’ guitar work, the real star of the band as far as I’m concerned is Don Walker, who wrote most of the Cold Chisel’s best songs. Flame Trees. Star Hotel. Saturday Night. Khe Sanh. Songs that tell stories.
(The concert was more or less a two-hour singalong with Barnesy, though I did laugh when the screens flashed with the lyrics to Khe Sanh, karaoke style. My theory is the band is sick of people getting the lyrics wrong).
All this got me thinking about my favourite crime stories in song form. Here’s my Top 10, and it required a Herculean effort to stop at 10. But I want to leave it open to suggestions from others.
I’ve interpreted the crime genre broadly though concentrated on crimes against individuals rather than songs about political crimes (e.g. ‘They Took the Children Away’ by Archie Roach; ‘Bicentennial’ by Paul Kelly; ‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol). I make no apologies for the predominance of country songs on this list. Nor can I account for why women seem less likely to write (as opposed to record) crime songs, other than from the perspective of victims.
Please weigh in with your picks.
- The Long Black Veil – Lefty Frizzell: A man is hanged for a murder he didn’t commit rather than use his alibi: being in the arms of his best friend’s wife. One of the greatest songs ever, crime or otherwise.
- Red Headed Stranger – Willie Nelson: The red headed stranger shoots the yellow haired lady outside the saloon when she touches the pony that belonged to his late wife. Features the immortal line, “You can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman who’s tryin’ to steal your horse.”
- Frankie’s Gun! – The Felice Brothers: Frankie betrays his partner in crime after a heist. “He shot me down Lucille.”
- Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen: A serial killer tells the story of his killing spree as he prepares to die in the electric chair. Chilling.
- Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” A classic.
- John Walker’s Blues – Steve Earle: Sung from the perspective of John Walker Lindh, an American Catholic who converted to Islam, fought for the Taliban and is currently serving a 20 year sentence after his arrest in Afghanistan in 2001.
- Ode to Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry: What was it that the narrator and Billie Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? And why did Billie Joe kill himself? A mystery in a song.
- Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis – Tom Waits: The pregnant narrator has stopped taking dope and hooked up with a trombone player who takes her out dancing. Or so she says.
- Harry was a Bad Bugger – Don Walker: Harry was “a bad bugger all the way” but the aggrieved small town local who narrates this song eventually gets his revenge.
- Last Night (Behind the wall) – Tracy Chapman: Tragic story of domestic violence and police impotence.