Best crime stories in a song

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
  3. Frankie’s Gun! – The Felice Brothers: Frankie betrays his partner in crime after a heist. “He shot me down Lucille.”
  4. Nebraska – Bruce Springsteen: A serial killer tells the story of his killing spree as he prepares to die in the electric chair. Chilling.
  5. Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” A classic.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Last Night (Behind the wall) – Tracy Chapman: Tragic story of domestic violence and police impotence.
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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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8 Responses to Best crime stories in a song

  1. I’ll weigh in, Angela….I’m musically hopeless, but the songs that I do love are those that tell a strory. Tragically they tend to be country and western… As embarrassing as it is to admit, I have been know to get teary over “The Coward of the County” (Kenny Rogers I think) It’s an absolutely brilliant story: son of a gunslinger promises his dying father that he will never fight and therefore grows up with the reputation of being a coward. Then one day the local thugs call by when he is not at home and gang rape his sweetheart…so he breaks his promise and kills them all. Moral: “sometimes you’ve gotta fight when you’re a man”.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Ah, Sulari, yet another reason to call ourselves friends: Kenny Rogers’ ‘Coward of the Country’ was on my long list!

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      • You know Angela…. because of that song I can’t bring myself to tell my boys not to fight… I just tell them to try not to throw the first punch. If my sons end up as hoodlums, Kenny will be responsible!

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  2. Diana says:

    I get the feeling when listening to Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads that he could have gone on and on… A compulsive genre once you give into the urge…?

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    • angelasavage says:

      Hi Diana,
      Actually ‘murder ballads’ are a sub-genre all of their own and Nick Cave has recorded a number of old school murder ballads such as ‘Stagger Lee’, written in 1910, and ‘The Knoxville Girl’, an Appalachian murder ballad first recorded in 1924 and derived from a 19th century Irish ballad called ‘The Wexford Girl’, the origins of which can be traced to an Elizabethan era poem ‘The Cruel Miller’.
      I’ve always maintained Nick Cave is derivative…
      See here for more on murder ballads — the sub-genre, not the Nick Cave album!

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  3. Riffing back to Paul Kelly

    “I woke up one morning, my head was feeling sore
    Woke up to the sound of knocking, detectives at my door
    There were two of them, they walked right in, I said
    ‘What’s going on?’
    The sergeant shook his head and said ‘Don’t you know
    what you have done?’
    I don’t remember a thing”

    Yeah – there’s a special kind of concentrated intense magical genius in writing a perfect song – lyrics and music that can float into the listeners’ ears and insinuate itself into their hearts and minds before they even realise it – and they’re captured.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Nice one, PM. I almost put Paul Kelly’s ‘Who’s Gonna Make the Gravy’ on my list except that it’s less about the crime than about doing time — compared with ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, which tells of the crime, too.

      I agree with you about the genius of song writing. Wish I could do it.

      ‘Who’s Gonna Make the Gravy’ does make my Top 10 Christmas Songs list, second only to ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.

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      • Oh yes, Fairy Tale of New York and talking of Kirsty MacColl her “Can’t stop killing you” has simply the BEST opening lines ever.

        He blew into town like a paper sack
        In a stolen car with a shotgun in the back
        He said “She can’t run now, she can’t hide
        I’m gonna get her back for her lies lies lies”

        Damn …… I wish I’d written that.

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