We - Kristopher Zgorski, Dru Ann Love, and I are at it again and this time we are highlighting some of our favorite songs that focus on the criminal elements, as we all know that, what’s a mystery without a crime. Thanks to Krisopher who came up with this idea.
And, thanks to Kristopher, who wrote today's post here. Please visit Kristopher and Dru Ann's sites to see the other guest posts.
When Dru Ann, Lesa, and I decided that our next Triple post was going to be about crime in music, I set out making a long list from which to choose the songs I would cover. This turned out to be quite a long list – as dichotomous as song and crime might seem, there is a long tradition of linking the two and I am happy that the three of us decided to cover this topic.
As I began to narrow down my long list to the chosen five, I noticed that I was gravitating towards songs that focused on the victims rather than the crimes or criminals themselves. This is not unlike what draws me in the novels I read, so this didn’t come as a surprise. Similarly, each of the songs focuses on a disenfranchised minority caught up in events beyond their control. These were voices struggling to be heard and now here we are can listen to them in music and lyrics.
Finally, before we get to my choices, I want to point out that three of my choices are songs written by the performer and almost exclusively associated with that individual. One of the others is closely associated with the artist who wrote it, but in my case, I chose a cover version. The final song chosen is an adaptation of a poem and has been recorded to great success by a vast number of performers, though I doubt anyone will question the version I choose to include.
And so…Songs of Crime:
Reba McEntire – Fancy
Written and first performed by Bobbie Gentry, “Fancy” first came to my attention with it was recorded by Reba McEntire in 1990, so that is the version I include here. “Fancy” is the story of an eighteen-year-old girl who is pushed into prostitution by her struggling mother. With no more advice than “just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and they’ll be nice to you,” Fancy enters a world she knows nothing about.
For me, the power of the song comes from the fact that Fancy does not let this event define her. She manages to find a way to make this hardship work for her and rises above her lot in life. Is there a more powerful statement of affirmation than:
“I might have been born just plain white-trash, but Fancy was my name!”
In this song, there is no doubt that Fancy is the victim, but she never allows society to victimize her. She never blames her mother for being in a situation where this was the only option. Regardless of her life situation, Fancy is the role-model we want for young girls – one who is proud of herself and stands up to a society that continually tries to push her down.
Fancy on YouTube: https://youtu.be/zplc4Ienkws
Bob Dylan – Hurricane
“Hurricane,” as written and performed by Bob Dylan, is about as close to a novel in song as one is likely to find. Dylan tells the story of Rubin Carter – who he believed was wrongfully convicted of a crime simply because he was black. Through much controversy and multiple legal actions, Dylan was able to get his song heard and the people listened. Eventually, Carter was granted a new trial and was ultimately released. That folks, is the power of song! You really have to listen to the song to hear the poetry that Dylan is such a master of. What is ironic is that while this song came out in 1975, lyrics like the following could just as easily reflect the issues society is facing today:
“In Paterson that’s just the way things go.
If you’re black, you might as well not show up on the street
‘less you want to draw the heat.”
Simply, change Paterson to Baltimore or Ferguson and alter the details of the crime, and you might have yourself a new protest song.
Hurricane on YouTube: https://youtu.be/FvI6ZX0yNjM
Tori Amos – Me and a Gun
Think about the confidence and nerve it must have taken for Tori Amos to include “Me and a Gun” on her first solo album. A stark, acapella song detailing the night of terror she faced years earlier, “Me and a Gun” documents her own rape in a way that is angry, yet redemptive. Few of us – though still far too many – know what it would be like to face that kind of violation. Who knows what we would be thinking during that moment, but when Tori tells listeners “I haven’t seen Barbados, so I must get out of this,” it rings completely authentic in a way that only putting it in a song could have. She then goes on to attack the culture of victim-blaming which still exists today:
“Yes, I wore a slinky red thing.
Does that mean I should spread
For you, your friends, your father – Mr. Ed?”
This powerful declaration is an example of a young woman who knows that she is fighting an uphill battle but still cannot stand by and allow herself and others like her to be made to feel as though they did something wrong, while the real villains are allowed to continue perpetrating their crimes.
Me and a Gun on YouTube: https://youtu.be/MPF_8T2pkAw
Melissa Etheridge – Scarecrow
This is probably the most obscure song on my list. “Scarecrow” was never a single and while Melissa does still regularly include it in her concert setlists, probably only her most devoted fans are familiar with it. Melissa wrote “Scarecrow” as a tribute to Matthew Shepard and the horrible ordeal he faced. Hopefully, everyone remembers that Matthew was a victim of a hate crime – beaten and tied to a split rail fence in Laramie, WY by a pair of homophobic thugs with nothing better to do after a night of excessive drinking.
By the time the song reaches the chorus, I am always in tears:
“Scarecrow crying, waiting to die, wondering why.
Scarecrow trying – Angels will hold and carry your soul away.”
Having traveled to Laramie myself to view the location of this tragedy, the image of the scarecrow silhouetted on the skyline will always rip my heart out. That was my way of paying tribute to Matthew’s sacrifice and this song is Melissa Etheridge’s way. As the song says towards the end: “I can forgive, but I will not forget.”
Scarecrow on YouTube: https://youtu.be/JwJqJP-VgGA
Billie Holliday – Strange Fruit
“Southern trees bear strange fruit” is one of the most chilling opening lines of any song in history. Adapted from a poem by Abel Meeropol, “Strange Fruit” is a cry against racism and the practice of lynching in particular. A relatively short song, the bluesy arrangement virtually makes the listener feel the stifling heat and the struggle for just one more breath. Though it has been covered by many artists, I don’t think anyone will ever come close to the Billie Holliday rendition. This is mainly because she herself was a victim of the rampant racism in our country. Her voice conveys that hurt and humiliation in ways that are indescribable. It is pointless for me to say more, all you have to do is listen.
Strange Fruit on YouTube: https://youtu.be/h4ZyuULy9zs
What is disheartening in looking at these songs is that in many ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The victims in these songs are in no way unique and we as a society owe it to them to hear their voices and the voices of those like them.