In my old songbook, I found a song I’d almost forgotten. It’s entitled “The Wall.” I couldn’t remember who sang it so I googled it and found that both George Hamilton IV and Johnny Cash recorded versions of the song. A fellow-inmate tells the story of a man who was obsessed with breaking out of prison after his fiancé wrote him with the news that she was marrying someone else. Here’s the final verse: “There’s never been a man ever shook this can/But I know a man who tried./The newspapers called it a jailbreak plan/But I know it was suicide, I know it was suicide.”
Speaking of Johnny Cash, he sang dozens of songs about crime. In fact, Cash had an album called “Murder Songs.” One of my favorite murder ballads is “Delia’s Gone.” It has that irreverent Prohibition-era feel about it. “I went up to Memphis and I met Delia there./Found her in her parlor and I tied her to her chair./Delia’s gone, one more round, Delia’s gone.” (The singer doesn’t really give a reason for killing the unfortunate Delia, but it may have been due to infidelity.) Later in the song he describes how he murdered her. “First time I shot her, I shot her in the side./Hard to watch her suffer but with the second shot she died.” After the murderer is caught, he’s haunted by the "patter" of Delia’s feet in his cell.
In the recent movie, “Walk the Line,” Joaquin Phoenix portrays Johnny Cash singing “Cocaine Blues” at Folsom Prison. This song was originally called “Little Sadie” and was about a prostitute who was murdered by an enamored john. It was probably written in the early 1900s. Country singers later changed it to its current version. “Early one morning while making the rounds,/I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down.” The murderer flees to Mexico but is caught and returned to Jericho Hill, South Carolina where he’s tried and convicted. Sentenced to 99 years in prison, he concludes: “Come all you rounders, listen unto me,/lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.”
An under-rated country singer in the 1960s and 1970s was Georgia’s Stonewall Jackson. Two of his murder ballads, “Leona” and “Life to Go,” are among my favorites. In “Leona,” the singer implores his cheating wife to return to him and their child. She laughs and goes to the local bar to meet her new lover. The husband follows her and when he arrives he finds this scene: “The sidewalk was crowded in front of the bar./I heard the siren, the black police car./Two bodies lay crumpled, a woman, a man,/His wife stood there by you, a gun in her hand.”
The following is an old folk song, almost certainly based on a true story. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, who did a version of this song, has the following to say about it on his website: “This is a good example of a song used for spreading the news of the day, way before radio, television, or the Internet. The content of the news is however strikingly similar.”
Pretty Polly (Old folk song)
“O, Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me.
He led her over hills and valleys so deep,
“O, Willie, sweet Willie, I fear from your ways.
“O, Polly, pretty Polly, there's no time to stand.
He threw a little dirt over and turned to go home.
Come gentlemen and ladies I'll bid you adieu.