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In 1974 the Bob Marley song “I shot the Sheriff” performed by Eric Clapton reached Number 1 in the Billboard 100.
Throughout the decades there have been many songs that were about crime or criminal behaviour, this is just a quick overview of some of these Criminal Songs.
Crime and murder have been the subject of popular recorded music since the invention of the phonograph. “Stagolee,” also known and performed as “Stagger Lee,” was one of the 20th century’s first hits. The lyrics, in which the theft of a Stetson hat leads to the death of a self-professed family man, were based on an actual murder that occurred in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1894 or 1895.
Over the years, versions of the song have been recorded by hundreds of artists, including, more recently, the Grateful Dead and Nick Cave.
Derek Bentley was convicted and hanged for the murder of Police Constable Sidney Miles in London in 1952. But Bentley did not fire the shot that killed Miles. His underage accomplice Christopher Craig did. Bentley shouted the ambiguous phrase “let him have it, Chris” to his coconspirator, which was part of the reason his death sentence has been highly contested.
Elvis Costello brings his customary literate vitriol to the case on “Let Him Dangle” from his late ‘80s smash, Spike, and takes down capital punishment in the process.
Johnny Cash recorded “Mr. Garfield” recounting the assassination of President Garfield by Charles Guiteau in 1881 for his epic 1965 concept album Johnny Cash Sings the Ballads of the True West. Instead of recounting the grisly details of the murder, Cash focuses his attention on the strife of the nation as it comes to grips with its fallen leader.
“Strange Fruit” was originated as a poem written by American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings.
In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine.Though Meeropol had asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set “Strange Fruit” to music himself.
“Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds” by Alabama 3 is a rarity on this list, as it features guest vocals from the criminal himself. In 1963, Reynolds carried out The Great Train Robbery, which at the time was Britain’s largest robbery ever.
While Reynolds was on the run following the incident, folk musician Nigel Denver immortalized the rogue in the song “Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds.” Reynolds eventually served 25 years in prison, and the song saw resurrection via the Alabama 3 a few decades after his release. In a strange twist, the Alabama 3 claims Reynolds’ son, Nick, among its members, a fact that led to a controversial appearance by Reynolds on the track.