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Bar News - January 15, 2014

Opinion: Crime Culture: How Government Helped Create Rap Music


Some crime arises from the inevitable friction of daily life. Look at how many people wind up with the wrong partners, for instance. “That’s what makes the jukebox spin,” wrote musician Willie Nelson. Some crime can be associated with mental weakness, writ large, including addiction and depression. That type (we often hope) can be ameliorated with treatment and care. Some crime, often the worst, is simply unfathomable. Thankfully, that sort is rare. There are fewer psychopaths among us than you might fear (studies also indicate that they tend to be employed on Wall Street).

Perhaps the most interesting type of crime of all, however, is the crime that a state creates on its own: by marginalizing a given population, making it impossible for it to thrive in lawful ways. You may believe that New Hampshire lacks such crime, but you’d be wrong. You could argue that marijuana-growers fall into that category, for instance; that would be a fun argument. You could also argue that the poor in general fall into that category; and that would be a political argument. Karl Marx argued accordingly more than a century ago; so did Charles Dickens; so have many philosophers (who focus on the usefulness of surplus labor to our economy). But what about Willie Nelson?

Not as much as Johnny Cash, who sang of shooting a man in Reno, “just to watch him die” (Folsom Prison Blues).

Johnny Cash came from the American south, where workingmen had long believed that the national government had aggrieved their families. It was natural for him to see crime as the poor man’s battle against the system. A generation before, in fact, Woody Guthrie did the same thing, combining a southern rebel’s attitude with Depression-era populism (“some will rob with you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen,” he declared, in Pretty Boy Floyd). And in back of that lies more of the same. The Appalachian Mountains were settled by farmers from Scotland, after all, who had immigrated to America after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie. A man of virtue was bound to be a rebel in their eyes (just like moonshine was the drink of the free).

We have the victorious English to thank for another font of great music as well: centuries of Irish rebellion. I wonder what Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers were thinking when their haunting version of Brendan Behan’s The Old Triangle was greeted so kindly by Greenwich Villagers in the peaceful and prosperous 1950’s (“The day was dying and the wind was sighing, as I lay crying in my prison cell...”). They might have been thinking that Greenwich Village had no idea what it was hearing.

Such skepticism would give short shrift to America’s love of violence, though. It seems like we have always been willing to fight for the sake of a good fight. And another line of interesting music is said to have begun with the story of Stagger Lee, an African-American gambler of sorts who lived in St. Louis in the 1890’s, where he killed a man for having disrespected his Stetson hat.

Songs about that incident became popular all along the Mississippi. The great musical historian John Lomax transcribed a few versions; it eventually made its way both east to the big bands and south to the blues singers. Duke Ellington and Woody Guthrie himself gave it a try; Lloyd Price finally sang it on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

From fact to myth to music, and more. I mention it here because its subject matter and attitude make it considered one of the earliest forebears of today’s most popular music of all: rap music, which arose not from the Mississippi Delta, nor from the countryside, but from poor black communities in our major cities. Rap has often taken for its subject matter the plight of the criminal and his place in society. And like every other form of this music, the Irish and the country-western in particular, it can reach for poetry in describing the sadness attendant to the required pose. Simply put, Tupac’s Dear Mama is pretty.

Listen to it with a chaser of the Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Then come to district court and watch the jukebox spin.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising. The author’s opinions are his own and do not represent the opinions of his employer, or the NH Bar Association.

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