Thursday, November 20, 2008

More crime songs

I've heard two folk songs recently that share something of the darker, Thompson/Goodis/Woolrich strain of noir and hard-boiled, yet remain two of the happiest, toe-tappingest, jolliest ballads you'd ever want to hear. This seeming contradiction captures the appeal of a certain school of crime story, and I invite your thoughts on the matter when you're done with this post.

The narrator of "Nancy Whisky" (known in some versions as "The Carlton Weaver") celebrates his "seven long years" in the thrall of the bottle, personified as a woman with "a playful twinkle in her eye." In some versions, such as this one by Shane MacGowan and the Popes, the singer "ran out of money, so I did steal."

In that way that folk songs and stories have, the song exists in multiple versions. In some, the narrator repents of his errant ways. In others, he pines away for his lost "Nancy Whisky." In still others, such as the version by Philadelphia's own Patrick's Head, the ending is more ambiguous: "As I awoke to strike my first (Or "slake my thirst"?) / As I went crawling from my bed / I fell down flat and could not stagger / Nancy had me by the legs," trailing off into the repeated, celebratory chorus: "Whisky, whisky, Nancy Whisky / Whisky, whisky, Nancy-o."

And how about this verse?:

"I bought her, I drank her, I had another
Ran out of money so I did steal
She ran me ragged, lovely Nancy
Seven years, a rolling wheel"


If that's not a Bonnie and Clyde or The Big O or a Barry Gifford story waiting to happen, I don't know what is. Of course, since "Nancy Whisky," though Scottish, is beloved of Irish bands, perhaps Big O author Declan Burke liked the song in his youth. Comment from said Mr. Burke is welcome.
================

The amazing "Weila, Weila, Waila," with its sing-song chorus and horrific subject matter, invites comparison with a form of literature darker and more violent than crime fiction: nursery rhymes. Have a listen here.

"And there was an old woman and she lived in the woods
A weila weila waila
There was an old woman and she lived in the woods
Down by the River Saile

"She had a baby three months old
A weila weila waila
She had a baby three months old
Down by the River Saile ... "


© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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49 Comments:

OpenID krimileser said...

No Lagavulin ? (Wonderful SM, like Laphraig from Islay. Peaty and matured in old Sherry casks).

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Haven't come across 'Nancy Whiskey', Peter ... sorry. 'Weila-weila-walila', on the other hand, is a cracker ... Nick Cave picked up on this kind of thing in his album 'Murder Ballads'.

What about a novel based on Whiskey in the Jar? I'm thinking of calling it 'Wack For The Daddy-O'.

Cheers, Dec

November 20, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

As Declan says, Nick Cave did a great job of this on 'Murder Ballads'...but I think traditional folk songs are full of noir moments. Sticking with the Irish for a second, there's 'The Well Below the Valley', as recorded by Christy Moore/Planxty from the singing of one John Reilly, another combination of weird, dark lyrics and upbeat melody. Less cheerfully, there's 'I am stretched on your grave' - a whole Hitchcock movie in a song.

And many of the Child Ballads are pure noir transposed to another time and place - 'Little Musgrave', 'Clark Saunders', 'Bonnie Banks of Fordie'...any one of them could be translated to, say, 1940s LA without too much difficulty. And they're terrific pieces of story-telling, too - have a listen to Christy Moore's or Nic Jones's version of 'Little Musgrave' or Nic Jones's version of 'Clyde Water'.

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Johnny Cash covered the old ballad "Sam Hall":

I killed a man, they said; so they said.
I killed a man, they said; so they said.
I killed a man, they said an' I smashed in his head.
An' I left him layin' dead,
Damn his eyes!


It is also remarkably perky, given its subject matter.

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bernd, you appear to have known Nancy Whisky intimately. I've not had that pleasure. I did have a fling with Sally Cider in Ireland, though.

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, I remember your "Wack for the Daddy-O" idea. I probably would love the title even if I'd never heard the song. It suggests rich possibilities. I see a hit man grown doubtful about an assignment ... a powerful, shady figure (the Daddy-O, of course) ... Nancy Whiskey might make a good title, too.

Murder Ballads came up in an earlier discussion about crime songs. I am more tempted than ever to look for it now.

"Weila, Weila, Waila" -- I'm sure volumes have been written about the psychological impulses behind making horrible crimes into folks, the more horrible the crime, the jauntier the song. Fascinating stuff and yes, a hell of a song, especially at a fast, lively tempo.

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, it appears that some of the ballads would make good horror tales as well.

Another fascinating subject is variant versions, little alterations that change a song from horrifying to moralizing, for example. What impulse lies behind such changes? That one original can serve as a platform for any number of different sorts of tales is interesting, I think.

I'm no psychologist or folklorist, but it's easy to imagine that such a song as "Weila, Weila, Waila" is a way for poeple to deal with that which would otherwise be inexpressable, as if telling of the horror somehow signifies a kind of control of it, or at least an uneasy coexistence with it. I wonder if readers are attracted to crime stories, particularly darker ones, for similar reasons.

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My name it is Sam Hall an' I hate you, one and all.
An' I hate you, one and all:
Damn your eyes.


Wow, that's great stuff. Thanks, Loren.

November 20, 2008  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

The subject of folk song variants is fascinating. I'm no folklorist, either - I just like the music - but I'm intrigued by the way that songs transform as they move through time or across geography. I suppose I can understand why they might be bowdlerised from horrifying to moralising, but it's more surprising when it happens the other way round - 'The well below the valley' supposedly has its origins in a song about Christ and Mary Magdalene... Speaking of variants, Richard Thompson also does a version of 'Sam Hall' in his '1000 Years of Popular Music' show. In Thompson's hands, it becomes a piece of hammed-up Victorian music hall melodrama, quite different in tone from Johnny Cash's version.

November 20, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Do you want a noir ballad?

10,000 maniacs
I'm not the man



It crawls on his back, won't ever let him be. Stares at the walls until the cinder blocks can breathe. His eyes have gone away, escaping over time. He rules a crowded nation inside his mind.
He knows that night like his hand. He knows every move he made. Late shift, the bell that rang, a time card won't fade. 10:05 his truck pulled home. 10:05 he climbed his stair, about the time he was accused of being there.
But I'm not the man. He goes free as I wait on the row for the man to test the rope he'll slip around my throat... and silence me.
On the day he was tried no witness testified. Nothing but evidence, not hard to falsify. His own confession was a prosecutor's prize, made up of fear, of rage and of outright lies.
But I'm not the man. He goes free as the candle vigil glows, as they burn my clothes. As the crowd cries, "Hang him slow!" and I feel my blood go cold, he goes free.
Call out the KKK, they're wild after me. And with that frenzied look of half-demented zeal, they'd love to serve me up my final meal.
Who'll read my final rite and hear my last appeal? Who struck this devil's deal?

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs always took herself too seriously, I think. If the subject is songs narrated by a man accused of murder, I'll take "Long Black Veil" any time.

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I'll have to figure out the best way to study this issue -- not an easy thing to do in America, where folk music has either died or gne udnerground. Call me a naive and sentimental tourist, but I think Ireland's tradition of pub singing does much to keep a folk tradition alive there, even in this age of recorded music.

So instead of buying some fat collection of folk songs, I'll have to look for what has been written about some of my favorite ballads.

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I thought of "Tom Dooley," but that hardly qualifies as upbeat.

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's upbeat in, er, its beat, at least in the popular version by the Kingsmen or the Kingston Trio or whatever group popularized it.

All I remember is the chorus, which would put the song in the moralizing camp. I don't know the rest of the words.

November 20, 2008  
Blogger N/A said...

Steely Dan wrote and performed a good numer of crime songs, from "Don't Take Me Alive" (www.lyricsdepot.com/steely-dan/dont-take-me-alive.htm), to "Kid Charlemagne" (www.lyricsdepot.com/kid-charlemagne.html).

One of my favorites, "Deacon Blues," is atmospheric and very noir (www.lyricsdepot.com/steely-dan/deacon-blues.html).

Paul Davis
daviswrite@aol.com

November 20, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For some reason, those links aren't working. When I get them straightened out, I'll be interested especially to see the lyrics of the latter two songs, which I've known for years without ever thinking much about the words. I guess the music was the main thing with Steely Dan, at least for casual listeners like me.

November 21, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

you realise you're a Glenlivet and an Islay short of a Robert Louis Stevenson poem?

November 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And me having just bought "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (and "Journey to the Center of the Earth") this weekend. I'm having a second childhood.

November 21, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Islay, Talisker and Glenlivet are RLS's trifecta. The latter two are from Skye and the mainland, though technically with the new bridge and all Skye really is the mainland now. And I hate to disagre with RLS, but I think Bernd's on the right track. The real stuff comes from Islay: Bowmore, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Islay etc.

November 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I ought to give this whiskey stuff a try. It obviously does the mind no harm.

November 21, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I think you know I'm not a pedant. And clearly I'm not even able to spell "disagree" above first thing in the morning, but in general one does not spell Scotch whiskey with the "e".

A nice bottle of Bowmore will do you no harm at all.

November 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I could not remember whether it was Ireland or Scotland that spelled it without the e. The issue was further confused because, though I believe "Nancy Whisk(e)y" is a Scottish song, I became acquainted with it through versions by Irish bands, whose liner notes and YouTube clips spell the word either way.

Luke Kelly sings it after the Scottish manner (Siller for silver, meer for more, looed for loved and the like). So I just decided, the hell with it. I'll spell it with the e. But I'll mind my orthography if I'm in the company of any Scotsmen. Aye, I will.

November 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But note the way I spelled it in the body of the post.

November 21, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

The copyeditor for my books at Scribner was a Glaswegian, but the proof reader was a Chinese American, so by the time I got the Mss. there'd often been an edit war over the spelling of the word whisky all the way through, blue pencil attacking red pencil in a bloody confrontation.

Did you finish Watchmen by the way?

November 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I happen to know a copy editor with two decades of newspaper experience, a few novel-editing jobs under his belt, and a broad enough perspective to consult with the author over questions of whisky vs. whiskey.

I shall finish Watchmen shortly. I took a break to read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because I had just seen the movie.

November 22, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

Definitely don't follow this link,then.Watchmen:The Condensed Version .Huuge spoilers.

November 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In that case, Marco, I shall rush through the rest of the book so I can watch the clip. A condensed version of my take on Watchmen so far is that I like the satire and the characterization better than I like the philosophizing.

November 23, 2008  
Blogger paulbrazill said...

'In Germany before The War' by Randy Newman.

November 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That might fit nicely with my recent reading of John Lawton's "Second Violin," set in England and Austria before the war.

November 24, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

How about that old standby "Mack the Knife" as the ultimate catchy crime tune? Here's a link to the long and convoluted history of this snazzy character, dating way back to the 1600s.

There are also several versions of "Tequila Sheila".

December 02, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

One more: "L.A. County" by Lyle Lovett, a very jaunty tune about a jilted lover killing his ex and her groom at the alter on their wedding day.

She left Dallas for California
With an old friend at her side
Well he did not say much
But one year later
He'd ask her to be his wife

(Chorus) And the lights of L.A. County
They look like diamonds in the sky
When you're driving through the hours
With an old friend at your side

One year later I left Houston
With an old friend AT my side
Well it did not say much
But it was a beauty
Of a coal black .45

(Chorus)

So I drove on all the day long
And I drove on through the night
And I thought of her a'waiting
For to be his blushing bride

(Chorus)

And as she stood there at the altar
All dressed in her gown of white
Lord her face was bright as The stars a'shining
Like I'd dreamed of all my life

And they kissed each other
And they turned around
And they saw me standing in the aisle
Well I did not say much
I just stood there watching
As that .45 told them goodbye

(Chorus)

And the lights of L.A. County
Are a mighty pretty sight
When you're kneeling at the altar
With an old friend at your side

December 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Mack the Knife" has come up in my discussions of crime songs. I know that "The Threepenny Opera" has its roots in the old "Beggars' Opera," but I don't know the roots of Mack the Knife/Moritat. I shall investigate. Thanks.

December 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the Lyle Lovett lyrics, too. That's a nice last verse.

I had previously known Lyle Lovett mostly for his interesting haircut and for one of the great band names ever: Lyle Lovett's Large Band.

Re your previous comment, "Tequila Sheila" is a wonderful, friendly title. I like the song without having heard it.

December 02, 2008  
Blogger paulbrazill said...

I've often wondered wether Mack The Knife could take Leroy Brown. With or without the knofe....

December 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Leroy Brown was a wuss, and so was Jim of "You Don't Mess Around With Jim," which was essentially the same song as "Leroy Brown."

Jim Croce's creation of the soft-rock tough-guy song is one of the odder footnotes to American pop music.

Verification word for this comment: winge -- not that I'm complaining.

December 02, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

I completely agree, Peter. Mack is way cooler than Leroy Brown, Jim or Slim.

December 02, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"You Don't Mess Around With Jim" at least had a bit of a jazzy sound to it. "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" was just a weird joke.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger paulbrazill said...

..after my encounter with a junkyard dog, in Warsaw, a few years ago, Leroy went way up in my estimation ...

December 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have no doubt that junkyard dogs tend to be for ferocious than, say, your Pekingeses or miniature schnauzers, and I suppose Jim Croce deserves credit for popularizing the term. Furthermore, it may be noteworthy that both Jim and Leroy Brown got their asses kicked. Maybe that makes Jim Croce a subversive figure. He was still a wuss.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger paulbrazill said...

..yes, but he could put time in a bottle,which is a trick and a half, don't you think? Big Bad John,on the other hand ...

December 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, he couldn't even do that. He spent three minutes pissing and moaning about what he would do if he could put time in a bottle.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger paulbrazill said...

Of course, second conditional. If+ past simple+ would +infinative.Hypothetical means never in my book.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, putting time in a bottle must be pretty difficult. Poor Jim Croce was probably tired from beating up the Leroy Browns and Jims of the world.

A theory: Jim Croce made pretty wussy music, and two of his big hits end with tough guys getting beaten up. Revenge fantasies against bullies or at least schoolyard kids he was afraid of?

December 03, 2008  
Blogger paulbrazill said...

The thing is, I didn't realise it was the same Jim Croce that wrote those song. Thanks for the FAB FACT. 'Not a lot of people know that'. as Mr Caine would say.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some of us remember when "Bad (uh!), Bad (yeah!) Leroy Brown" was on the radio. Such useless information our brains are cluttered with.

December 03, 2008  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I'm not much of a 'folkie', but Fairport Convention's 'Matty Groves' from their 'Liege and Lief' album is a great favourite of mine,Peter, and a crime song, to boot

That old blues/rock'n'roll chestnut, 'Stager lee'/'Stack-O-Lee' ("that baad man!") must surely rank among the great crime songs, as must Jimi Hendrix 'Hey Joe'
("where you goin', with that gun in your hand"?)

August 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have a colleague or two named Joe, and whenever anyove calls out, "Hey, Joe!" I have to answer "Where you going with that gun in your hand?"

I wonder if Stagger Lee/Stack-O-Lee came up in any of these discussions of crime songs. Greil Marcus wrote about its earthy and ancient mystery, and so on, I think.

August 28, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

That 'sequitur's almost a pre-requisite whenever addressing friends or acquaintances called Joe.
I have a copy of 'Mystery Train', but I've never gotten around to reading it
(or finishing Peter Guralnick's 'Elvis' biog. for that matter)
I guess that must constitute a crime, of sorts.

The reggae song, 'Johnny Too Bad' must surely be a crime song also
(I know it was on the soundtrack of that great movie 'The Harder They Come')

August 28, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read Mystery Train, or good chunks of it, years ago.

I also remember telling someone that The Basement Tapes was so good that it almost lived up to Greil Marcus' praise.

But, hey, the man's right. No reason to believe that amid the vast sea of largely indifferent sludge that is rock it roll, some rare examples should not partake of American mystery ...

August 28, 2010  

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