Everyone digs outlaws it seems. Or at least the image of the outlaw. Guys, girls, movie directors, and authors. However, it would seem that songwriters are the biggest fans. Popular music of all genres celebrates the outlaw life: just think of your favorite ten tunes or so, and there is probably an outlaw at the heart of at least some of them.
John Kruth dives deep into the tales of men — and women — on the wrong side of the law in his book, “A Friend Of The Devil: The Glorification of the Outlaw in Song from Robin Hood to Rap,” beginning with Robin Hood and English folk music. Likewise, he demonstrates that blues and country music also extol the Wild West tales of Billy the Kid and Jesse James, and gangsters such as Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde. The transformative jump to R&B, rock & roll, reggae, and eventually hip-hop and rap music is a given.
Kruth, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist musician, offers up a ton of excellent examples. It’s fun to connect the dots as the stories move from genre to genre. The mutations of the songs and characters of, say, Stagger Lee, or Stack O’ Lee, or Stago-lee, are jaw-dropping. Ma Rainey, Mississippi John Hurt, Lloyd Price, Woody Guthrie, the Grateful Dead, Amy Winehouse and Nick Cave have all told the tale of one man’s fateful night of gambling.
Robert Johnson famously sold his soul to the devil and had “Hellhounds On His Trail” until he died at age 27, after drinking a poisoned glass of whiskey from his lover’s husband. Country music also delves deep into many of these stories. Johnny Cash would profess, “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” and then record a live album at Folsom County Prison. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings would birth a highly influential movement called “Outlaw Country,” while Willie’s and Merle Haggard’s take on Townes Van Zant’s ultimate outlaw ballad “Pancho and Lefty” reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs. Reggae music and Jimmy Cliff tell the legend of a street hood named Ivanhoe Martin in “The Harder They Come,” and Bob Marley famously shot the sheriff — but not the deputy! Rap and hip hop would adopt the gangster culture and rename and market it as “Gangsta,” straight outta Compton. Brooklyn rapper Foxey Brown, who would cut “Bonnie and Clyde (Part 2)” with Jay Z, would herself become entangled with the law and serve jail time.
John Kruth’s book investigates these and many, many more songs, and the continuum that links them all is fascinating. Everyone, it seems, loves a good outlaw tale, and the storytelling tradition in song continues to grow. After all, as Danny O’ Keefe, the songwriter of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” neatly sums up: “You can’t be an outlaw when you’re not wanted anymore.”