Criminal Law Music

Over the weekend I indulged my passion for music, which started me thinking about the overlap between music and my day job at the School of Government—in other words, songs that involve criminal law. Once I started, it wasn’t hard to come up with several examples, in different genres and about different phases of criminal proceedings. My choices, below, show that we are products of our eras; they date me. What songs about criminal law stand out for you?

There are lots of songs about crimes. Neil Young sang about homicide in Down by the River, where he confesses that he shot his baby. The entire musical Chicago is about homicide and the public’s fascination with criminal proceedings. It includes some catchy numbers about trial procedure and attorney-client relationships, although don’t put too much stock in the veracity of the lyrics.

Many songs refer to controlled substances. Songs by the Grateful Dead come to mind, although one of my favorites, Truckin’, includes a concise analysis of the Fourth Amendment: “[I]f you got a warrant, I guess you’re gonna come in.” Good advice if the police are at your door with a warrant.

In Every Breath You Take, Sting (somewhat ironically for this post, a band member in the Police) sang about stalking: “Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.” You can find different interpretations of the lyrics but, given that Sting wrote the song after his separation and later wrote a musical apology, If You Love Somebody, Set them Free, I’ll stick with stalking.

For my colleague Shea Denning, I came up with a song about criminal motor vehicle law, Hot Rod Lincoln, popularized by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. It’s a great foot tapping number as long as your foot isn’t on the gas pedal and you don’t wind “it up to a hundred and ten” as described in the song. There’s even a pretrial release angle (the subject of increasing litigation): “They arrested me and they put me in jail and called my pappy to throw my bail.”

Sentencing and punishment are common topics. According to one website, the number one song about prison is Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, where “time keeps draggin’ on.” The Sam Cooke classic Chain Gang describes an actual chain gang that he saw working on the roads in Georgia while he was on tour.

Some of my favorite criminal law music comes from television cop shows. The moody, jazzy theme songs from 1950’s detective shows, such as the theme from Peter Gunn (by Henry Mancini) and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (from the 1939 jazz standard Harlem Nocturne), have no lyrics but easily fit in the category of police investigation music.

It’s not surprising that we have so much criminal law music. Criminal law deals with the spectrum of human behavior: often troubling, sometimes peculiar, or just run-of-the-mill. Music provides us with an outlet for our feelings, whether deeply held or lighthearted.

If this post strikes a chord with you, tell me about some of your favorite criminal law music. If you provide the name of the song and the lyrics or other features that evoke an aspect of criminal law, I’ll try to harmonize them with the classes I teach.

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83 comments on “Criminal Law Music

  1. Biggie Smalls 10 Crack Commandments

  2. We cannot forget Vanilla Ice and Ice Ice Baby… “anything less than the best is a felony” or any of the fantastic works of Missy Misdemeanor Elliott.

  3. Don’t forget ‘Tom Dooley’ by the Kingston Trio…another song based on a true story. The song is about Tom Dula’s conviction and hanging for murder in Wilkes County.

  4. The ultimate wrongful conviction song. Sang from the perspective of an executed man: “Long Black Veil” by Lefty Frizzell (1959).
    “There were few at the scene, and they all agreed that the man who ran looked a lot like me……
    The judge said Son, what is your alibi? If you were somewhere else then you won’t have to die.
    I spoke not a word, though it meant my life. I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife.”

    Where are those appellate lawyers and actual innocence folks when you need ’em?

    The Montana Supreme Court referenced Biggie Smalls and NWA in its opinion.

    While not especially criminal, any attorney who has done child support contempt defense or prosecution (i’ve done both), will find this music video funny:

  6. Don’t forget Jay-Z’s infamous “99 problems [but the bitch ain’t one]” discussing the K9 unit and searching his car.

    • That song got me through my Criminal Procedure final exam in law school.

  7. “Long Black Veil” (country hit covered by many from Cash to Mick Jagger & bluegrass bands)
    “Ten years ago, neath the town hall lights, a man was killed, and the man who ran looked a lot like me…”
    “the judge said son, what is your aliibi, if you were somewhere else then you won’t have to die”

  8. Branded Man written by Merle Haggard

    I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am
    But they won’t let my secret go untold
    G C G
    I paid the debt I owed them but they’re still not satisfied
    D7 G
    Now I’m a branded man out in the cold

    C G
    When they let me out of prison I held my head up high
    Determined I would rise above the shame
    G C G
    But no matter where I’m living the black mark follows me
    D7 G
    I’m branded with a number on my name

    Repeat #1
    C G
    If I live to be a hundred I guess I’ll never clear my name
    Cause everybody knows I’ve been in jail
    G C G
    No matter where I’m living I’ve got to tell them where I’ve been
    D7 G
    Or they’ll send me back to prison if I fail

    Repeat #1

    tag: D7 G
    Now I’m a branded man out in the cold

  9. Deep Cover by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre

    Yeah, and you don’t stop
    (‘Cause it’s 1-8-7 on a undercover cop)
    Yeah, and you don’t stop
    (‘Cause it’s 1-8-7 on a undercover cop)

    187 CA penal code for 1st and 2nd degree murder

  10. There is an entire genre of songs called murder ballads, of course, dating back to 17th century England. I’m fond of both the American variety – see Jason Harrod’s rendition of “Molly” (he’s a local, though currently living elsewhere) – and newer interpretations – disbanded Durham group The Future Kings of Nowhere, “`10 Simple Murders.”

  11. Dagnabbit, that should say the “Americana” variety.

  12. how ’bout, “I fought the law and the law won”, by Bobby Fuller four, or, “I shot the
    sheriff”, by Eric Clapton

  13. Can’t leave Chuck Berry out – the first line of Brown Eyed Handsome Man is “arrested on charges of unemployment,” and the song goes on to describe a judge’s wife interfering in a criminal prosecution.

    In Thirty Days Berry has ex parte communication with a judge and resorts to swearing out a warrant on a “false charge” to get his lover back home after a “world wide hoodoo” didn’t do the trick – he then goes on to say that if the warrant doesn’t work he’s going to take the issue to the FBI and the United Nations.

    With national interest in sentencing reform, it’s worth mentioning Johnny Cash’s San Quentin as well (“I’ll walk out a wiser weaker man, Mister Congressman why can’t you understand?”).

  14. Junior Brown—Highway Patrol

    I got a star on my car and one on my chest,
    A gun on my hip and the right to arrest
    I’m the guy who’s the boss on this highway
    So watch out what you’re doin’ when you’re drivin’ my way
    If you break the law, you’ll hear from me, I know
    I’m a-workin’ for the state, I’m The Highway Patrol

    Well, you’ll know me when you see me, ’cause my door’s painted white,
    My siren a-screamin’ and my flashin’ red lights
    I work all day and I work all night
    Just a-keepin’ law and order, tryin’ to do what’s right
    If I write you out a ticket, then you’d better drive slow
    I’m just a-doin’ my job, I’m The Highway Patrol

    I’m the highway patrol, the highway patrol,
    My hours are long, and my pay is low
    But I’ll do my best to keep you driving slow
    I’m just a-doin’ my job, I’m The Highway Patrol

    If your drivin’ to fast like you shouldn’t do,
    You can bet your boots, I’m comin’ after you
    If you wanna race then get on a race track,
    ‘Cause if you try and run away I’m gonna bring ya back
    I’m here to keep all the speeders driving slow
    I’m just a-doin’ my job, I’m The Highway Patrol

    I’m the highway patrol, the highway patrol,
    My hours are long, and my pay is low
    But I’ll do my best to keep you driving slow
    I’m just a-doin’ my job, I’m The Highway Patrol

    I’m just a-doin’ my job
    I’m The Highway Patrol

  15. Chamillionaire- “Riden” – They see me rollin / They hatin / Patrolling they tryin to catch me ridin’ dirty / Tryin to catch me ridin’ dirty…

  16. I guess my favorite criminal law song is Willow Garden, the best lines of which are the last words of the defendant as he stands “upon the scaffold high,”
    “My race is run beneath the sun.
    The devil is waiting for me.
    For I did murder that dear little girl.
    Whose name was Rose Connely.”
    Judging from the voluminous response to your email, somebody should probably consider creating a criminal law music festival!

  17. I’m surprised no one has mentioned Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” By far, one of the best “criminal justice” songs ever written:

    Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
    Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall.
    She sees the bartender in a pool of blood,
    Cries out, “My God, they killed them all!”
    Here comes the story of the Hurricane,
    The man the authorities came to blame
    For somethin’ that he never done.
    Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
    The champion of the world.

    Three bodies lyin’ there does Patty see
    And another man named Bello, movin’ around mysteriously.
    “I didn’t do it,” he says, and he throws up his hands
    “I was only robbin’ the register, I hope you understand.
    I saw them leavin’,” he says, and he stops
    “One of us had better call up the cops.”
    And so Patty calls the cops
    And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashin’
    In the hot New Jersey night.

    Meanwhile, far away in another part of town
    Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are drivin’ around.
    Number one contender for the middleweight crown
    Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down
    When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road
    Just like the time before and the time before that.
    In Paterson that’s just the way things go.
    If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
    ‘Less you want to draw the heat.

    Alfred Bello had a partner and he had a rap for the cops.
    Him and Arthur Dexter Bradley were just out prowlin’ around
    He said, “I saw two men runnin’ out, they looked like middleweights
    They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates.”
    And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head.
    Cop said, “Wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead”
    So they took him to the infirmary
    And though this man could hardly see
    They told him that he could identify the guilty men.

    Four in the mornin’ and they haul Rubin in,
    Take him to the hospital and they bring him upstairs.
    The wounded man looks up through his one dyin’ eye
    Says, “Wha’d you bring him in here for? He ain’t the guy!”
    Yes, here’s the story of the Hurricane,
    The man the authorities came to blame
    For somethin’ that he never done.
    Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
    The champion of the world.

    Four months later, the ghettos are in flame,
    Rubin’s in South America, fightin’ for his name
    While Arthur Dexter Bradley’s still in the robbery game
    And the cops are puttin’ the screws to him, lookin’ for somebody to blame.
    “Remember that murder that happened in a bar?”
    “Remember you said you saw the getaway car?”
    “You think you’d like to play ball with the law?”
    “Think it might-a been that fighter that you saw runnin’ that night?”
    “Don’t forget that you are white.”

    Arthur Dexter Bradley said, “I’m really not sure.”
    Cops said, “A poor boy like you could use a break
    We got you for the motel job and we’re talkin’ to your friend Bello
    Now you don’t wanta have to go back to jail, be a nice fellow.
    You’ll be doin’ society a favor.
    That sonofabitch is brave and gettin’ braver.
    We want to put his ass in stir
    We want to pin this triple murder on him
    He ain’t no Gentleman Jim.”

    Rubin could take a man out with just one punch
    But he never did like to talk about it all that much.
    It’s my work, he’d say, and I do it for pay
    And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way
    Up to some paradise
    Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice
    And ride a horse along a trail.
    But then they took him to the jailhouse
    Where they trialed a man into a mouse.

    All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance
    The trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance.
    The judge made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums
    To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum
    And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger.
    No one doubted that he pulled the trigger.
    And though they could not produce the gun,
    The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed
    And the all-white jury agreed.

    Rubin Carter was falsely tried.
    The crime was murder “one,” guess who testified?
    Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
    And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride.
    How can the life of such a man
    Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
    To see him obviously framed
    Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
    Where justice is a game.

    Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
    Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
    While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
    An innocent man in a living hell.
    That’s the story of the Hurricane,
    But it won’t be over till they clear his name
    And give him back the time he’s done.
    Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
    The champion of the world.

  18. Johnny Cash already has been mentioned a few times, but not I think a particular favorite of mine, “I Hung My Head,” a hauntingly beautiful study of criminal intent and culpability, which also proved to be a potent lullaby when my son was an infant:

  19. Lyrics from a Guns and Roses song, “I used to love her, but I had to kill her.” The rest of the lyrics are also quite shocking.

  20. Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, guns and money”
    Styx “Renegade”
    Led Zeppelin “Gallows Pole”

  21. Dupree’s Diamond Blues- Grateful Dead

    Down to the jewelry store packing a gun,
    says “Wrap it up. I think I’ll take this one”
    “A thousand dollars please,” the jewelry man said
    Dupree he said, “I’ll pay this one off to you in lead”

    Well you know son you just can’t figure,
    first thing you know you’re gonna pull that trigger
    and it’s no wonder your reason goes bad –
    jelly roll will drive you stone mad

    Judge said “Son, this gonna cost you some time”
    Dupree said “Judge, you know that crossed my mind”
    Judge said “Fact it’s gonna cost you your life”
    Dupree said “Judge, you know that seems to me to be about right”

    Well baby, baby’s gonna lose her sweet man
    Dupree come out with a losing hand
    Baby’s gonna weep it up for awhile
    then go on out and find another sweet man’s
    gonna treat her with style

    Judge said “Son, I know your baby well
    but that’s a secret I can’t never tell”
    Dupree said “Judge, well it’s well understood,
    and you got to admit that that sweet, sweet jelly’s so good”

  22. Robert Earl Keen- They’d just as soon blow you away

    You take off from work a bit early
    The boss doesn’t care if you stay
    The guard with the key has to check your ID
    But he’d just as soon blow you away

    The cops have stopped ten miles of traffic
    They’re sorry for all the delay
    No need for alarm as they’re waving their arms
    But they’d just as soon blow you away

    You got in some trouble in high school
    But you feel like a new man today
    You keep to yourself because anyone else
    Would just as soon blow you away

    You’re standin’ in front of the teller
    She’s countin’ out all of your pay
    There’s twenties and ones and there’s guards with their guns
    And they’d just as soon blow you away

  23. I can tell the story, I can tell it all, about the whippoorwill (mountain boy) who ran illegal alcohol.
    Dad, he made the whiskey; Son, he drove the load.
    When his engine roared they called the highway Thunder Road.

    (Remembered here for Friend John, 1946-1967)