Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why Do We Have to Have Murder Songs?

   In Old Time Music we generally like to stick to the traditional lyrics for a song.  But what do we do when there are lyrics that are really, truly objectionable?

   There are many, many song lyrics that deal with committing murder.  Not to pick on an American Institution, but one prominent set that comes to mind is from Blue Yodel No 1 (T for Texas):

      I'm gonna buy me a pistol
      Just as long as I'm tall, Lawd, Lawd 
      I'm gonna buy me a pistol
      Just as long as I'm tall
      I'm gonna shoot poor Thelma
      Just to see her jump and fall.

Now if these songs were from a rap song we might go wild and write a nastygram to the radio station for playing it, but this is an industry standard song, one of the (otherwise) greatest songs in history.  Or how about the Bill Monroe standard, Banks of the Ohio:
     I held a knife against her breast
        As into my arms she pressed
     She said Willie "Don't you murder me
        I'm unprepared for eternity."

     I took her by her lily white hand,
       And dragged her down that bank of sand
     There I throwed her in to drown.
        I watched her as she floated down.

Less objectionable to me are lyrics that are about repentance.  Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues comes to mind:

     When I was just a baby, 
        My mama told me, Son
     Always be a good boy, 
        Don't ever play with guns.
     But I shot a man in Reno 
        Just to watch him die.
    When I heard that whistle blowing,  
        I hang my head and cry

So, performers are faced with the decision about whether to keep the traditional lyrics or drop those that seem to promote insidious evil.  

What is the purpose of putting these lyrics in a song?  Indeed, there is kind of a tradition that says a good performing set should include a Civil War song, a train song, a love song and a murder song. I'm not sure why that is, but many bands deliberately compose song sets that contain at least one murder song. 

I don't think that Jimmie Rodgers or Bill Monroe or any of the others wanted to inspire a generation of women killers.   Perhaps it is intended to be a sort of catharsis,   much like a Shakespearean murder play such as MacBeth or Hamlet.  By experiencing horrible crimes in a song, perhaps the listeners will be warned to avoid it in the future.  But is that really the way it works?

I don't know of any scientific study that says listening to this song or others like it will increase the probability that the listener will resort to gun violence.   Nevertheless, I think advertisers will vouch for the power of song in advertising, and if you create songs about, for example, eating at McDonalds,  and get enough people to listen to it, you will create a higher chance that people will actually eat at McDonalds.  So it makes sense that if you have a tremendously popular song about offing your girlfriend, there is a risk that such crimes will increase.  

For that reason my preference would be to avoid lyrics that seem to promote behaviors that would be considered felonies, especially when they seem unrepentant.  For example, in "T for Texas" after murdering Thelma in cold blood, the guy gets a shotgun to do in Thelma's new boyfriend as well. 

In the Morgantown Wednesday Night Jam, the lead singer has been known to tweak the lyrics when they suggest wrongdoing or violence to women.    It's just a little thing, but to me the world is just a bit better place when the lyrics about violence or wrongdoing are left out.     

But I can kind of understand why people feel the need to sing about murder and other almost unspeakable crimes, since unfortunately it is a part of our everyday lives.   There is no clear cut answer, but I would like to ask my performer friends to at least reflect on the lyrics before automatically going with them.  You never know what influence you might have on someone.