First, it should not be forgotten that the jury acquitted Torrence Hatch - the rap artist who records as Lil Boosie - and this means he is not guilty in law. His acquittal appears to have been due largely to the recantation of a prosecution witness who claimed he implicated Boosie because he was pressurised by the police. It should be noted that a recantation before or even during a trial carries a lot more weight than one or several made afterwards - supporters of the late and unlamented Troy Davis
take note. That being said, in view of the notoriety of rap music - its mega-use of the dreaded N word, its demeaning of women as bitches and hoes, and not least in this case, its naked violence, it is perhaps a little surprising that the judge allowed Boosie's violent lyrics to be admitted as evidence
that he actually contracted a murder, though it is not surprising that prosecutors attempted to use them as such.
Had Boosie been convicted, his song 187
would have become a modern murder ballad. Although silly love songs
seem to be a staple of the music buying public - as a certain Mr McCartney
once said - murder also has a lengthy pedigree. The Great JC spoke in parables, in days of yore, so did poets and minstrels because often what they had to say would not have pleased the king, the emperor or the ruling elite generally, so discretion was the better part of valour. But songs of a political or socially aware nature were not always about cruel or murderous tyrants, and songs about murder were not always about the social order.
One murder ballad that does cover both is the English folk song Matty Groves
, one version of which was published by Boosey & Hawkes - small world. Matty Groves
is an entirely fictional story though, but many murder ballads are rooted solidly in fact, including those from the 20th and 21st Centuries.
The 1913 murder of Mary Phagan
led to first a murder ballad
, and much later to a musical, Parade
, but there is a much bigger and grander production based on the ultimate crime.
How many people realise that the award winning musical Chicago
is rooted firmly in fact?
The character Roxie Hart is based on Beulah Annan, who really did shoot her lover in the back then sit drinking cocktails and listening to the song Hula Lou
over and over again while he lay dying, as in the film. And the song We Both Reached For The Gun
was derived from an actual newspaper headline. The other protagonist in the film, Velma Kelly, was based on Belva Gaertner, who like Beulah Annan was a married woman who shot dead her lover. Both women were acquitted by all male juries in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt. What does that tell you about the American legal system, and most of all about men?
In 1979, the Boomtown Rats were riding high in the British charts with Rat Trap
, an overtly commercial song. It would have been natural for them to follow it up with more of the same, and milk the record buying public for all they were worth. Instead, Bob Geldof wrote a really inspired song that was anything but commercial, totally unlike Rat Trap
, and courted controversy, albeit of the manufactured kind.
In San Diego, California lived a schoolgirl named Brenda Spencer. For Christmas, 1978, her father had given her a rather unusual present, a semi-automatic rifle, and
on January 29.,1979, 16 year old Brenda Ann Spencer sat in the window of her house - that was literally just across the road from the Grover Cleveland Elementary - and opened fire. She killed two people: both heroes. They were the school principal Burton Wragg and janitor Mike Suchar. Eight children were injured, and a police officer.
After a stand off lasting several hours, Brenda Spencer surrendered, and the only reason she could give for what could have been a far worse carnage was that she didn't like Mondays. When Bob Geldof heard that claim he ran off the song, and I Don't Like Mondays
became a truly massive hit topping the UK chart and many others, winning him an Ivor Novello Award in the process.
The song reached 73 in the US chart, and would probably have gone much higher but for the negative reaction and mock outrage from radio stations. In the UK, at least one correspondent said it was more obscene to give a 16 year old girl a gun as a Christmas present than to write a song about what she did.
At the time of her spree killing, Brenda Spencer had long red hair and was stunningly attractive. She didn't look quite so attractive 26 years later when she was refused parole
Finally, two cases from the UK. In 2005, Muzzaker Shah rapper wrote Real Killers
, a track that included the lines
“I've got to pop shots,
Drop cops on the block.”
On November 25, 2005, he was part of a gang that shot and killed WPC Sharon Beshenivsky in Bradford. In December 2006, he was given the mandatory life sentence with a 35 year tariff.
In November 2009, another rapper, Ishmael McLean, was given a 5 year sentence for perverting the course of justice and possessing ammunition. He had written a song called Wrong Team
that contained the lines
“I can't wait for the snitch to drop,
I still show up at his wake just to see him off.”
The song was then used to attempt to intimidate potential witnesses to the murder the previous November of 24 year old Jason Johnson.
A selection of murder ballads by the man from SongFacts
can be found here