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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Johnny Cash 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.
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.
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.
Blues singer Mississippi John Hurt recorded what is largely known as the definitive version of this famous murder ballad in 1928. Based on the real life incident of Lee Shelton’s murder of Billy Lyons on Christmas, 1895 in St. Louis, Mo., Hurt immortalizes Shelton as a supernaturally bad man who faces death with dignity. With an easygoing delivery and fingerpicked guitar in full effect, Hurt trivializes Shelton’s homicidal tendencies while also honoring him and bringing some on-point racial commentary into play.
While not as infamous as that other British Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper’s story is still sensational enough to have inspired novels like David Peace’s Red Riding trilogy and movies based on those novels. Peter Sutcliffe’s conviction of murdering 13 women in Yorkshire in the 1970s serves as the basis for this English singer/songwriter’s “Leeds United,” using the crime as a focal point for the darker aspects of ‘70s Britain. This also goes for Leeds United soccer fans, who turned Sutcliffe’s elusiveness in being caught into a soccer chant. Ever the underrated lyricist, Haines basically summarizes both the real case and Peace’s novels in less than four minutes, topping it off with a stadium-sized chorus and a “The North! The North! Where we do what we want” payoff.
While 1978’s Top Priority may not be Rory Gallagher’s greatest release, “Philby” stands as another classic in the Irish blues player’s long line of tales concerning those outside of society. The song alludes to Kim Philby, the Cold War-era British double agent for the Soviets, who Gallagher uses to express his sense of dislocation. Gallagher makes his alienation more palatable by incorporating a rare ‘60s electric Coral sitar into the song.
Enough artists have written songs about Charles Manson to warrant a separate list. Among the finest of those numbers is Sonic Youth’s duet with Lydia Lunch, which succeeds on sheer creepiness alone. The song’s lyrics are deranged without being overly graphic and Lunch’s voice takes the song to a whole other level of insanity. Add Richard Kern’s ghoulish and highly influential video into the mix and you have one of the creepiest moments in all of indie rock history.
Tying in the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-1980, Mark David Chapman’s murder of John Lennon, and the attempted assassination of President Ronald Regan, “Annie Christian” is a triple threat in terms of crime references. More than just a selection of topical references that embodied America at the start of the ‘80s, Prince uses these events to investigate the evil inherent in the human condition.
Interpol frontman Paul Banks’s lyrics seem so directly tapped into his subconscious that it’s anybody’s guess what they are about. Still, the title of “Pioneer to the Falls” seems more than coincidental, as it was written around the time of the murder of Imette St. Guillen, whose body was found in 2006 after traveling from one New York bar (The Pioneer) to another (The Falls). Add this to the song’s continual reference to a “dirt pile” and the image of a grave the phrase inevitably conjures, and the theory that the song may be about St. Guillen seems more than worthy of speculation. Whether or not the song itself is intended to be an apology to St. Guillen, it serves as a chilling example of how real life tragedy can seep into the farther reaches of our brains.
“Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds” 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.
One of The Boss’ finest releases, Nebraska’s title track tells the story of Charles Starkweather, a 19- year-old who, along with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, went on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming in the late 1950s. Springsteen researched the case extensively, but still took artistic liberties with the song, tying in elements of Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands, as well. Springsteen’s is a spare, unemotional account, embodying the coldness that is required to commit such an atrocity.