Executioner’s Last Songs, Musicians Against the Death Penalty

That motormouth Bono announced to the world (everything he says these days seems to have the weight of a Papal Encyclical) in a recent interview in Time magazine that he’s given up on music as a political force. From here on out Bono says he’s going to use the persuasive aura of his own personality to wipe out Third World debt. After all his are the lips that smooched Jesse Helms and the hands that caressed Orin Hatch. Is it too soon to say good luck and good riddance?

Bono’s self-directed exit (was he ever really there to begin with?) leaves the field open to artists who still believe that music has the ability not only to stir the soul but change the heart and minds of people willing to listen. One such artist is Jon Langford, who has been around longer than Bono and has never given up on the power of popular music to reach people and inspire them toward social change.

Langford is a leader of the great British punk band The Mekons, a group of Leeds University leftist and anarchists, who, along with The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Gang of Four, produced some of the most politically-charged music of the late seventies and 1980s. In fact, I’m not sure I could have survived the eighties without the knowledge that a new record by the Mekons could be expected every six months or so. The Mekons made records that sounded just as pissed off as I felt about the Thatcherites and Reaganites and the liberal wimps who stood by as the rightwing goons turned the government into a thermo-nuclear subsidiary of the transnational corporations. And, of course, the Mekons were a raucous counterpunch to the kind of musical fare we were being spoon-fed through the eighties (led by the narcissistic sputum of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Duran Duran), as the corporatization of rock was in full-bloom.

The Mekons may never have acquired the international following of the other bands, but they never sold out either. The Mekons made music their way: confrontational, experimental and uncompromising. They were versed in Marx, Tzara and Debord, but they also knew their Bob Wills, Bill Monroe and T-Bone Walker. Some of their records were odd, some truly bad, and some, such as Rock n’ Roll, stand with the best music made in those dreadful decades.

While many other punk-influenced bands imploded, died off, retired, or, like U2, morphed into pop autmatons for the big music conglomerates that rule the soundwaves, the Mekons, in their various guises (such as the Waco Boys and Pine Valley Cosmonauts), kept on making their own kind of music. Often a species of punk-country. Usually out of Chicago, once the city that electrified the blues, now an emerging center for neo-roots music.

There is, of course, no more potent symbol of the ultimate authority of the state than the death penalty. And it’s prevalence here offers a peephole into the true character of the American political system, where the execution of prisoners often serves as a kind of obscene offering to the electoral gods. Remember Rickey Ray Rector, the black, brain-damaged inmate Clinton rushed home to put to death in the heat of the 1992 campaign? Thus, it’s scarcely surprising that upon relocating to the US Langford and his cohorts would soon begin to agitate, both musically and politically, for its abolition.

And it’s also apt that when the time came to make a full-blown musical manifesto against the death penalty Langford chose to burrow into the American past to reinterpret old-time music, the music that came out of what Greil Marcus calls the Weird America, the Invisible Republic of cotton field workers and hillbillies, juke joints and charismatic churches.

There was a time when American music was filled with stories of everyday violence, the cruelties of prison life, vigilantism, mob violence and the horrors of execution. The old dialectic of freedom and confinement was at the core of the lyrical content of the regional music that gave birth to rock n’ roll. The blues, bluegrass, mountain ballads, Ur-country-roots music, as the labels market it today–all dealt frequently–even obessively–with these themes that were so much a part of being poor and/or black in America. To a large extent this tradition of American music is only being carried on these days by hip-hop.

So now Langford and his Pine Valley Cosmonauts give us: Executioner’s Last Songs, a collection of 18 songs “of murder, mob law, and cruel, cruel punishment.” The title of this release, from Chicago indie label Bloodshot Records, is at once a play on Norman Mailer’s account of the 1977 killing by the State of Utah of Gary Gilmore (the first execution since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty) and a prophesy of sorts. The band, with help of an amazing collection of like-minded artists, reworks music from the Louvin Brothers, Charley Pride, Johnny Paycheck, Cole Porter, Merle Haggard, the Stanley Brothers and Johnny Cash with the intent, according to Langford, “of consigning them to the realm of myth, memory and history.”

The proceeds from the album will go to the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project, which has done unyielding work on behalf of death row inmates over the past few years. In the outside world, this toil is largely thankless, but in 2001 17 people in the state of Illinois alone walked off Death Row, in part due to the project’s tireless efforts.

But let’s be clear. The real movement against the death penalty isn’t about only keeping innocent people from being killed by the state. What rational person (WARNING: Antonin Scalia is NOT a rational person) would not be opposed to the killing of innocents? No. This is about abolition, period.

The rising tide of executions (there have been 763 killings since Gilmore, with more than half of those having been carried out in the last five years) is America’s equivalent of Argentina’s so-called dirty war, where hundreds of souls are carted off to their doom with little hope of appeal. Call them America’s disappeared.

There are now more than 3,700 prisoners on death row, with a new one being added nearly every other day. States, led by the killing machines of Texas and Florida, are putting women, children, the sick and the mentally-ill. Meanwhile, constitutional rights to effective counsel, a jury of your peers (people who oppose the death penalty are not permitted to serve on juries in death penalty cases) and habeas corpus have been gutted.

Executioners’ Last Songs isn’t a No Nukes or We Are the World type of endeavor. It’s a genuine oppositional undertaking. The death penalty remains sickly popular in America and resistance to it is scarely a ticket to career enhancement. Artists who take on this cause in a serious way-such as Springsteen, Steve Earle, and Langford and company-do so at some risk to their livelihood. It’s one thing to attach yourself to a cause like saving the Amazonian rainforest and quite another matter entirely, in this nation at least, to demand that the state should not have the legal or moral right to kill prisoners, even if they have committed unspeakable crimes.

But though the issue is almost unbearably grim, there’s nothing solemn or preachy in this offering, no pious sermonizing or Bono-like preening for the cameras. There is, however, a blistering rant-in all the best senses of that word-by Tony Fitzpatrick. With a nod to Dylan, Fitzpatrick titles his call-to-arms Idiot Whistle: “Politicians love the death penalty because it makes a bunch of candy-asses look like tough guys.”

The music moves through its own stages of grieving and lamentation, puzzlement, revulsion, querulousness and outrage: from the lovely and gifted Neko Case’s elegaic Poor Ellen Smith and the Faulknerian black comedy of Jenny Toomey’s Miss Otis Regrets to The Aluminum Group’s 25 Minutes to Go (a bracing countdown to an execution) and Rick Sherry’s full-throttle version of Don’t Look at the Hanged Man.

The Advert’s 1977 punk classic Gary Gilmore’s Eyes is countryfied by Deano from the Waco Boys’ with help of Sally Timms from the Mekons. The inimitable LA alt-country phenom Rosie Flores sings, with a voice somewhere between Melba Montgomery and Iris Dement, Hank Williams’ I’ll Never Get Out of this Place Alive. Steve Earle breathes new life into Tom Dooley, making that old story sound urgent, new and familiar all at the same time. To my mind, Earle is the most compelling American rocker out there today. He’s certainly the most interesting, producing music that just keeps getting better and deeper. Earle’s got a voice that can chill your spine and a guitar-style as raw and accomplished as anything hatched by the great westside Chicago bluesman Hounddog Taylor.

Remember George Bush and Karla Faye Tucker? Lanford and Johnny Dowd do in their song Judgement Day: “God gave her life, but the mighty state of Texas took it away. She’s dead. Gone. To a better place. The governor’s so ashamed he won’t even show his face.Just one thing I want to say: She ain’t the only one facing the Lord on Judgement Day.”

Chicagoan Diane Izzo contributes a defiant version of the sinister ballad, Oh Death. Her exquisitely eroded voice reclaims the old Dock Boggs song from the malign purposes it was put to in the Coen Brothers’ offensive minstrelsy-show of a film, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou, where Ralph Stanley’s resigned voice is outrageously rerouted through the mouth of a Klansman.

Last phone calls. Last letters. Last kisses. Last meals. Last songs. Dreams of escape, freedom and commutation. Last prayers to Jesus, Allah, Elvis. Final goodbyes. It’s all here in the songs; the unspeakably cruel circumstances of everyday life on America’s death row.

The CD closes with Paul Burch’s assured version of Walls of Time, a beautiful bluegrass tune penned by Peter Rowan, which became a signature song for Bill Monroe. It’s a kind of ghost story, really, a ghost story that ends on a quavering note of love, reunion and redemption.

Executioners’ Last Songs provides an eerie kind of testimony to just how wrong Bono is. The songs are haunting, angry, and, often, funny–the kind of gallows humor that only works when it’s done by those who know what’s really at stake. So take those ridiculous U2 cds down to the used record store, trade them in and recycle the money into something that matters: Executioners Last Songs. And feel good about it. You can make a difference. Music isn’t going to lead the way to radical change (that’s going to take lawyers, organizers, activists, politicians and judges with courage), but it sure as hell can provide the marching tunes. Langford and friends have given us an unexpected message of hope amidst the bleakest of circumstances. Hope through struggle, that is.

Jeffrey St. Clair can be reached at counterpunch@counterpunch.org

Today’s Other Features:

Susan Davis
Sleepless in the Suburbs
Curing Insomnia: a new use for The Nation?

George Sunderland
“Send in the Weekly
Standard”: The Screaming Pundits Assault Corps

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3