Crime may not pay, but it does provide rich material for songwriting. Look no further than the murder ballad, that enduring song form that can be seen in genres ranging from Appalachian folk songs to indie pop to rap. While the murder ballad was sometimes a work of fiction, we’ve compiled a list of songs inspired by real life serial killers, crooks, and some wrongly accused souls who have appeared in broadsheets and terrorized real towns and cities.
1. Neko Case, “Deep Red Bells”
Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer, was convicted of murdering 48 women in Washington State and California in the 1980s and 1990s, around the time Neko Case was growing up in Tacoma. Her song, addressing one of Ridgway’s victims, is as chilling as any classic murder ballad. Yet, it manages to balance out the chills with plenty of empathy, perhaps most deftly illustrated in the lines, “When speckled fawns graze ‘round your bones / Who took the time to fold your clothes / And shook the valley of the shadow?” “Deep Red Bells” is particularly unsettling when considering Ridgway was coincidentally arrested shortly after the song was recorded, in November 2001.
2. Nirvana, “Polly”
Gerald Friend, a suspect in the Green River Killer case, abducted and abused a teenage girl who accepted a ride from him after a rock concert in 1987. Kurt Cobain read about the story in the paper and wrote “Polly” around the time of Nirvana’s 1989 debut, Bleach. Its acoustic arrangement was at odds with Bleach’s abrasive palate, and so it wasn’t until 1991’s Nevermind that the song was released. You certainly don’t need the back story to detect the song’s bleakness, but “Polly” becomes all the more sobering once you comprehend the reality of the torture alluded to in its words.
3. Elvis Costello, “Let Him Dangle”
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 this album cut from his late ‘80s smash, Spike, and takes down capital punishment in the process.
4. Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”
One of Bob Dylan’s most famous protest songs was inspired by the wrongful imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in the 1960s. Dylan’s song brought the case to the public’s attention and, along with the Rolling Thunder Review, he performed a benefit show in support of Carter’s release. Besides its historic relevance, “Hurricane” is a feat in storytelling and pacing, transitioning from the events that led to Carter’s arrest to various public opinions to a plea for the boxer’s freedom. Buoyed by Scarlet Rivera’s dramatic violin playing, it’s a song that encapsulates music’s ability to become something almost cinematic while also acting as a catalyst for social justice.
5. Johnny Cash, “Mr. Garfield”
recorded this traditional song 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.
6. The Smiths, “Suffer Little Children”
From Moors murders witnesses Maureen Hindley and David Smith caricatured on the cover on Sonic Youth’s Goo to The Smiths’ “Suffer Little Children,” there is no shortage of references to Myra Hindley and Ian Brady in rock music. A heartrending and lyrically complex lament, “Suffer Little Children” acts as a remarkable closing song on The Smiths’ 1984 debut. Introduced by Johnny Marr’s misleadingly pleasant guitar, it takes a turn with Morrisssey’s eulogizing of the young victims via a roving point of view. The disembodied laugh of a child toward the song’s end is a prime example of finding horror in a sonically unlikely setting.
7. The Killers, “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”
The Killers singer Brandon Flowers has said he was inspired by Morrissey to write songs about murders (and of course the bass riff in this song is pure “Barbarism Begins At Home”). Thus, “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” is just one of three songs in the Killers’ “murder trilogy,” inspired by Robert Chambers’ murder of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin in New York City in 1986. Say what you will about what The Killers became, or what they even were at the time of their 2004 debut Hot Fuss, but “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” is a solid synth rocker proving there was something behind the Las Vegas dazzle of some of the band’s more obvious numbers.