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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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