A Country Murder Song—Without the Murder

When they cite great American storytellers of the 20th Century, it’s likely to include Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton along with Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. That’s because country music is largely about storytelling. Many country songs have an abundance of love and tragedy, death and murder, etc—and with a dramatic arc. A beginning, a middle and an end.

And today’s post dissects a song that has a story with a beginning, a middle and an end—but not necessarily in that order.

Warren Smith was a country and rockabilly singer for the great Sun Records in the late 50s, and thanks to bad luck and a bad disposition he’s been relegated to “footnote” status. He made some interesting rock ‘n’ roll songs that were regionally successful, with names like “Uranium Rock” and “Ubangi Stomp,” but most of what he recorded for Sam Phillips in Memphis went unreleased.1

In 1995, a collection of his songs—officially released and otherwise—came out. It ends with an outtake, a country ballad called “My Hanging Day.”

Little is known about this song, i.e. who wrote it or when it was recorded. Honestly, it isn’t a great song. It’s a fine song. More so, it’s a dignified song, which is why it caught my ear.

With barely a second of musical introduction, the storyteller begins. No flourish, no pomp. Within a few words we can tell–both from what he’s saying and how he’s singing it—that he’s on death row, talking to a preacher or a guard.

     Don’t tell my son that I was born in a world of poverty.
     Don’t tell my son that in the morning, I’ll be hanging from a tree.
     Don’t tell my son I killed a man for talking out of turn,
     About the things his mother did he may never learn.

Then, like a film, we go into a flashback. The entire song is built as a single verse. The melody doesn’t change from passage to passage; there isn’t a pause for musical interludes or a solo; and only a handful of words are repeated, which is the lone hint of a “chorus.”

     When I was married to his ma, I always did my best.
     I worked so hard both day and night. I never stopped to rest.
     And then when I’d come home at night, his mother was not home.
     She grew tired of married life and started out to roam.
     And then she met a gambler and the two left town.
     I hunted far, I hunted near, I vowed to hunt them down.
     And then one day so far away, I walked in to a saloon.
     There sat a gambler playing cards and whistling a tune.
     I bought a drink for him and me, and soon the talk did flow.
     He was the one who took my wife, this much I soon did know.

At this point, his flashback ends and we’re back in that jail cell…

     Don’t tell my son I killed a man for talking out of turn,
     About the things his mother did he may never learn.
     Tell my boy goodbye for me. I must go away.
     Tell my boy goodbye for me. This is my hanging day.

And the song ends. In fact the music is done before his last line is sung. (It may be the most music-free song I’ve ever heard.) And here’s what kills me: he doesn’t describe the murder. He tells us of everything before and after—all the way up to and including the moment he realizes he’s sitting across from the man who stole his wife—but leaves out the violence. I imagine the narrator’s dignity won’t permit him to describe the obvious.

After I had heard the song for years, this device, this considerate omission finally clicked. I thought, man, if this were a film, it would be very difficult to pull this off. There’s something about a film, with the whole “visual, multiple characters talking, 2 hours of your time” thing going on, that you can’t pull a stunt like that, cannot omit such a crucial scene. But in a three-minute format, with just a man’s voice and a guitar, the omission becomes graceful and even appropriate.

I’d like to add that there is a film that plays with this notion (though I dread writing too much so as not to spoil the film). It’s Tim Blake Nelson’s Eye of God (1997). Set in Oklahoma and starring Martha Plimpton and Hal Holbrook, it’s a Bible Belt murder mystery that toys with time—flashbacks, flashforwards—and a blend of what’s shown and what isn’t. It’s all handled very deftly, and the cumulative impact is dynamite. I strongly recommend it.


Warren Smith – My Hanging Day (2:22, right-click to download)


BACK TO POST 1 Part of the problem may have been marketing him as a rockabilly singer. Years later, producer Sam Phillips admitted to writers Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, “Warren Smith was probably the best pure singer for country music I’ve ever heard. He had a pure country voice and an innate feel for the country ballad…He was a difficult personality, but just interesting enough that I liked him a whole lot.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Music, Plucked from Obscurity

2 responses to “A Country Murder Song—Without the Murder

  1. mary ellen porto

    That is a great song! Thanks for posting it and I second the recommendation for “Eye of God”. A truly fantastic and interesting film…

  2. Such a great film. And the director’s commentary is wonderful, too.

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