Law and Justice in Popular Music: Murder Ballads

Author: Daniel Newman*


Popular music has often talked about themes of relevance to legal scholars, issues such as criminality and social justice. To date, academic legal work has not tended to focus on popular music though, little moving beyond using lyrics to add colour to a dull journal paper or perk up a title. As such, it is fair to say that popular music has not been taken seriously, which is in some contrast to works of literature such as novels or plays. There is a buoyant law and literature movement using such texts to inform legal writing. This paper argues that popular music could and should be considered in a similar light. In so doing, it provides an illustrative case study of music where there are themes that could be of interest to legal scholars and may help inform academic debate: murder ballads and the way these might be used to reach a greater understanding of provocation in the criminal law.

1. Introduction

Popular music seems an appropriate yet thus far neglected topic for those with an interest in law and literature, a field that has at its core the desire to place the law within socio-cultural context. As cultural forms, both law and music can be identified to have politics writ though them (Manderson, 2013). There is a link between law and music that stretches back to Ancient Greece when oral culture such as popular song set the tone for what was acceptable or not within society (Mittica, 2015). Indeed, Plato (2008: 71) recognised the politico-juridical power of music, stating that, “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them”. Criminology has duly given extensive attention to the links that legally relevant issues such as deviance (Becker, 1991), delinquency (Cohen, 2011) and moral panic (Hall, 1978) have with various genres of popular music but legal scholars have lagged behind when the subject matter has a great deal of pertinence.

Rather than recognising the social element of popular music, treatments of music in law tend towards the legally technical with the bulk of material on issues such as copyright or intellectual property rights not looking at the cultural content of the music itself (Grossfeld and Hiller, 2008). This paper seeks to redress such an imbalance by treating popular music as literature.

2. Law, Literature and Popular Culture

This relative dearth of popular music in law exists despite literature now being recognised as a legitimate and exciting field for legal scholars to delve in to, one whose vibrancy is even bucking the trend of a wider academic decline in literary criticism (Seaton, 1999). Ward (1995) points out that it is not always appropriate or even preferable to separate between the binary opposites that have typically been taken to constitute law and literature but this division has been long cast as the law as literature approach against the law in literature approach. The school of law as literature sees a value to law in considering the techniques employed by literary scholars. This approach is perhaps most evident in Dworkin’s (1982) constructive interpretation whereby literary interpretation is used as a model for jurists interpreting statutes and case law. Law is akin to a chain novel; like a book passed from author to author, legal doctrine develops over time. The law in literature approach is focused on the analytical toolbox provided by literary theory, which has potential to help lawyers on topics such as rhetoric (Duong, 2005).

This approach has been most notably critiqued by Posner (1986), who believes that law as literature scholars take literature too seriously and get carried away by superficial similarities that blind them to the fact that law is a distinctive subject with a specific legal method from wherein the views of jurists must be given ultimate primacy. This position, though, is infused with a most patronising understanding of literature, which dismisses it as mere entertainment and thus ignores the political power inherent within literary comment assuming that only law is capable of dealing in matters of such refined importance (Balkin, 1989). One of the strongest rebuffs to Posner (1986) has come from West (1985), wherein the use of literature is defended not least for its ability to instigate debates around authority, power and obedience within the law. Such an approach better reflected the law in literature school whence literature takes less of a role in explaining the functioning of the legal process and is more valued for its ability to provide insight into the human condition. Rather than seeing a practical, technical value in literature through whatever skills can be harvested for lawyers and jurists, law in literature uses literature as a means of critiquing social institutions and legal norms, with benefits such as the ability to improve the ethical component of legal practice (Weisberg, 1992). This focus on the subject matter of literary texts, the content rather than the structure, can duly be used to improve understanding of legal matters.

Intersecting the two established schools of law and literature, Feenan (2009) has identified the development of a literature for law approach, especially in the work of legal scholars that make use of particular conceptions of literature in legal-centric analysis. This approach differs to the previous understandings in that literature is not simply offered up as a mirror to law but, rather, allows for an exploration of legally relevant issues such as justice without requiring that the text present an explicit relation to legal institutions. For example, instead of drawing on the more typical Kafka work of The Trial with its literal focus on the functioning of the legal system (Potter, 2005), it allows for looser interpretation of more general themes such as judgment in a non-legal story such as The Hunger Artist (Bell, 1996). The move to literature for law can be readily extended to a wider humanities for law approach, as in Williams (2009) for whom there is a natural affinity between law and the wider humanities. This relates to the shared focus on human experience and the manner that law is only mistakenly understood as a forensics exercise when it actually addresses the problems that arise from simply being a person negotiating the challenges that present in everyday life (Williams, 2009). The accepted use of literature for legal scholars, then, would usefully be extended out to consider the value of cultural forms in general (Binder and Weisberg, 2000). One such area for further consideration should be music.

Music and literature share common derivation and, though there are differences between the written word and the world of performance, they retain obvious parallels and essential characteristics such that scholarship of the two fields can be sensibly combined (Brown, 1970). Aside from pure music, which lacks words, a designed programme nor an intention to depict a series of events, most music shares with literature propositional content, that is to say works from both realms are properly appreciated by trying to understand the message with which the writer imparts them (Johnson-Laird and Oatley, 2008). Whether songs have this propositional content or not, though, music and literature each offer a series of signs, internal and external codes that can be analysed for meaning (Steiner, 1981). Wider than the search for a specific intent, the work of Barthes (2007) highlights that both forms are equally effectively understood as cultural phenomena, texts to be decoded for the broader message they communicate, regardless of meaning being consciously bestowed by the writer. Such is the approach taken towards the written word in much of law and literature, whether those words are read on paper or performed on stage, captured on film or recounted in a recital. So could music be incorporated in this way, whether lyrics as originally penned are the focus of analysis or some other aspect of performance, reception or the wider usage of the piece becomes the issue under attention.

To date such music has not formed a significant part of the law and literature movement, though there has been some notable scholarship that need be included within this field. Following the law as literature approach, Balkin and Levinson (1991) have suggested that the performing arts are more relevant to the law than novels or short stories, using examples such as Beethoven’s piano sonatas to illustrate the process of interpretation that musicians go through and from which the authors draw parallels with the work of the judiciary. A comparable process has been applied to the study of Verdi operas, again considering the implications of the expectations placed on performers when interpreting a score with the life of precedent and principles in legal systems (Balkin, 2003). In a similar vein, Manderson (2000) has argued legal texts should be treated as a cultural product akin to the great works of classical music, using musical forms (prelude, fugue and requiem) as a basis to analyse the law. He argues against considering law as a series of rationally constructed, logical propositions and, rather, urges recognition of the creativity involved. This means judgments and statutes are constantly in flux and thus able to be reinterpreted and, in so being, are all the more powerful for their lack of fixed and static integrity. Such studies, then, use classical music as a metaphor for legal reasoning but do not engage with the content of the music, the stories they tell or the morals they contain (Mittica, 2013). In the same way that law and literature has tended to focus on the classics rather than, for example, the plethora of detective stories in pulp fiction novels, explorations of the role that music can play in law and literature have marginalised popular music, which might thus be understood as neglecting popular culture more widely. [1]

In outlining an argument for the establishment of a legal theory that explores popular culture, Asimow and Mader (2013: 5) offer a passionate defence against those who would look to belittle such scholarship:

Countless academics have researched and taught about high culture, as if it were the only kind of cultural product that counts. Other academics have scorned popular culture as escapist trash that imparts false consciousness to the masses while capturing profits for its producers.

These authors believe that law and popular culture are entwined in everyday life, an interface they label popular legal culture. In this vein, popular cultural representations of law are important in encouraging wider society to engage with jurisprudential concepts (MacNeil and Populi, 2007). Sherwin (2004) suggests that there is a two-way relationship between law and popular culture with real legal issues and controversies influencing popular legal representations just as popular legal representations help to inform and shape real legal issues and case outcomes. He proposes a constructivist approach whereby popular culture is used to consider underlying socio-legal trends. It is through popular legal culture that most ordinary people develop, reflect on and communicate their experiences of topics such as crime, justice or the legal profession. Public attitudes to the law are brought most into focus by the consumption of popular culture. Television shows about detectives and police have been prevalent since the 1970s but, in the 21st century, it seems that the age of the crime procedural has well and truly dawned, from the glamorous American shows with massive worldwide ratings and multiple spin offs such as NCIS, CSI or Criminal Minds to the critically revered and much remade Nordic Noir dramas such as the Killing, Borgen or the Bridge.

With criminal justice in particular, taking such a prominent role in contemporary popular culture, it is understandable that there would be an emerging trend toward studying law in popular culture (see, for example, Asimow, Brown and Papke, 2014; Greenfield and Osborn, 2013; Sarat and Ogletree, 2015). With regards to law and popular culture, film and television have been the focus of most of the academic attention and, when authors talk about the expanding field of popular legal studies, they largely refer to an increased focus on visual media (Sherwin, 2002). Music takes a minimal role in this movement and, for instance, in an edited collection of a dozen plus authors, writing considering the relationship between law and popular music would be lucky to receive a solitary chapter of recognition. Such a trend for TV and movies is understandable; it is a field with so much legal-related output that it provides a rich seam to mine for insight. All the same, it would be a shame for popular music to be neglected as there is great potential for understanding to also be drawn from this realm with music every bit as pervasive as visual culture in day-to-day life. Indeed, lyricists such as Johnny Cash can even be considered as a “‘folk’ voice regarding crime and punishment” (Gerkin, Rider and Hewitt, 2010: 158). Popular music offers a significant degree of social comment whether explicit through a narrative that seeks to critique society or implicit through providing awareness of how people see the world.

3. Law and Popular Music

Popular music has not been completely ignored as some valuable examples can be found. In research, for example, interesting incidents from pop history and song lyrics from popular songs can also be utilised by legal scholars. Indeed, Long (2006: 1) has shown that these are often used in juristic writing to help advance arguments, most pertinently because they present a quick and easy means to make a point:

Popular music is a popular topic in legal writing. Law professors and practicing attorneys need little excuse to write about legal issues involving particular musical artists or genres when given half a chance, and the legal problems of our favorite artists and the written judicial opinions they produce are a particular source of interest for many lawyers. We may generally care little and understand even less about the vagaries of copyright law, but you tell us that John Fogarty of Credence Clearwater Revival once got sued for plagiarizing his own songs and that the case actually made it all the way to the Supreme Court, well, by golly, we might just read your little law review article on the subject, even though we secretly think most law review articles are painfully dull.

In particular, then, the use of popular music offers a writer a valuable device to render what could be quite a dry and, otherwise dull, argument suddenly more interesting and thus engaging to the reader. Long (2006) scoured academic databases and legal depositories to identify exactly how frequently legal scholars use popular music and, beyond musical anecdotes as in the quote above, the most common usage of popular music is through the deployment of lyrics as devices to explain or outline an argument. In this manner, while popular music may be, indeed, popular in legal scholarship, the analysis here suggests that it is used in a quite superficial manner, with lyrics typically dropped into papers as catchy titles or deployed as quotes to kick off sections in a fresher way than the author could manage through their own words. Long (2006) duly produced a top ten list of the most cited artists in legal scholarship.

It contained probably the two biggest bands of all time, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, neither known particularly for the commentary on legally relevant issues (with concessions made for tracks such as Revolution and Gimme Shelter respectively) but likely placed in the chart due to their widespread appeal meaning they have influenced scholars at formative parts of their lives. Most of the rest of the chart have a more obvious relation to the legal field as famously political artists like Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell and REM rub shoulders with performers who are renowned for the social commentary in their songs such as Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon or Simon and Garfunkel. The great bastions of the hippy counterculture, the Grateful Dead, are also included, a band whose anti-establishment stance probably inspired many a legal scholar studying during the 1960s. It is, though, surely not surprising that Bob Dylan would top this particular chart.

Dylan is widely considered among the greatest lyricists of all time with turns of phrase that are sometimes considered as much poetry as they are pop songs (as if that gave them more merit) giving his words a well-dressed literary credit over and above that typically ascribed to popular music. Further, though, on considering the content as well as the form of these lyrics, Dylan is most famous for his highly political songs and the strong element of social consciousness that pervades his writing; him rising to prominence as folk troubadour writing the protest songs that buoyed the emerging activist scene enthused with anti-war and pro-civil rights sentiments. Dylan is, then, undoubtedly the most written about pop performer in the legal canon. [2] Indeed, it is in considering the work of Bob Dylan that we can find one of the most notable exceptions to the rule that lyrics are generally deployed in passing as simply rhetorical devices. For example, Perlin (2010) seeks to recast Dylan as a jurisprudential scholar in his own right, picking apart Dylan’s output and categorising the legal themes that are addressed throughout. As such, Dylan can be seen to tackle civil rights, the inequality of the criminal justice system, institutions, judicial corruption, equality and emancipation, poverty, the environment, the inequality of the civil justice system, and the role of lawyers and the legal process. The hit list for Dylan reads like a syllabus for an undergraduate module in Law and Society but the content of his songs fit neatly under these headings and offer valuable contributions to debates in each area acting in some ways as pop socio-legal theory in the manner of the pop psychology books that shape many lay persons understandings of that field of enquiry today. For the author, he is even able to identify the almost complete confluence of his own approach to jurisprudence with the values imparted through Dylan songs thus highlighting the influence of, what here is considered to be, Dylan’s theoretical legacy.

Whether or not one goes to the lengths of offering a performing artist as a jurist, there seems great potential to follow this line of according popular music more attention beyond simply adding a line or two to an exposition in order to make the prose more readable and, perhaps, somehow fun (for the writer or the reader). Popular music must be accepted to play a key social role and, as such, demand being given proper consideration by theorists with even the most cursory interest in the social as most legal scholars invariably do. [3] In this vein, Jaff (1986: 659) offers a convincing argument that lawyers need to pay attention to the work of artists that have taken it upon themselves to use their music in particular to paint a picture of the systems of justice and lawyers’ role within it, stating that:

If part of the artist's role in society is to provide us with a mirror in which to self-reflect, then as lawyers, we ought to be aware of the pictures of our profession that artists choose to paint. If another part of the artist's social role is to communicate ideas which other members of our community share, then again, as lawyers, we ought to be attentive to the ways in which artists perceive us.

Indeed, research has suggested that legal professionals would benefit from a greater degree of self-reflection and to give greater care to how others perceive them in order to ensure that justice accords with wider societal views (Newman, 2013). With popular music such an influential means of socio-cultural expression that is, concomitantly, readily accessible to most, it seems logical that it should form a part of the process by which those in the legal system consider their practice and how that relates to the surrounding community. Legal scholars should take a lead in this process by engaging further with popular music. While few treat popular music with enough respect to draw a deeper analysis from it, the work of Butler (2010) bucks the trend by doing just that and taking lessons from African American musical cultures, particularly hip-hop. The hip-hop scenes that have emerged from and, thereon, represent the reality of inner city areas in US cities can be taken to reflect black experience of the criminal justice system in a way that most members of a predominantly white judiciary would not recognise or understand. [4] By this line, black people experience the law as oppression by way of police discrimination and racial profiling, often living more exposed on-street lifestyles that put them in the view of the police, and in cultures where drug use and weapons are prominent and explicitly targeted by police. As such, he shows that black people have learnt to stand up to the authorities and resist the institutions of the state such as the police. Butler (2010) argues that the popular music produced by and, in large part, for African American urban residents could have a radically powerful and illuminating effect if imported into the criminal process highlighting the injustices perpetrated against black defendants and encouraging white lawyers to appreciate the different background and experiences of black people suspected and accused of crimes. Further, black people within the justice system should take on board these messages and resist taking part, throwing its proper functioning into disarray – through practices such as black suspects refusing police permission to search them or black jurors refusing to find verdicts in drugs trials. He argues that the experience of justice outlined in hip-hop has a lot to teach those in the judicial system. The account provides a potent argument for collapsing the wide incongruence that currently separates the world of black urban youth and white middle class legal professionals with music being a potential means of improving channels of communication.

With the exception of the superficial studies identified by Long (2006), the more substantial work on popular music such as Perlin (2010) and Butler (2010) seem to align more with the law in literature approaches rather than law as literature, which appears a more natural fit with analysis of classical music in a legal framework. On top of this, there is much potential to develop the literature for law approach in popular music as well with a large amount of material on legally relevant themes but not necessarily giving specific references to the law. At the present time, though, studies of law in popular music do not seem to be recognised within the world of law and literature, which is to say that the knowledge they can produce on the role of law in society is not being fully utilised. [5] A lack of integration of the limited but interesting studies on law in popular music into the law in literature canon might be considered part of a broader academic worldview whereby musicologists with an interest in popular music can be isolated from rather than welcomed into other areas of study (Katz, 2014). In contrast with mainstream musicology, which has tended to focus on an analysis of historical music, ethno-cultural accounts of non-Western societies or the science of sound, studies of popular music are cast as more radical in a quest for sociological meaning of music texts, genres and subcultures (Middleton, 1997).

Popular music studies, then, represent an interpretive wing of musicology, as shown in scholars such as Shephard and Wicke (1997) who draw parallels between the study of popular music and cultural studies, arguing that popular music is not merely a form of leisure or entertainment but fundamental to social life for the key role it plays in the formation and reproduction of human societies. By understanding it as an important form of human expression, popular music studies can be drawn into wider theories of culture, linguistic theories, structuralist and post-structuralist theories, and psychoanalytic theories of music. Reading popular music as texts, then, can stimulate law and literature by considering when and how legal issues are invoked, be this through being incorporated into song lyrics, the images portrayed by artists or the views invoked by scenes. Whatever aspect of popular music is considered, there seems a value on looking at the role played by the law in this literature, which can be reflected back through legal scholars in order to offer fresh perspectives on legal issues that might help us develop further understanding in certain areas or, even, encourage whole new avenues of enquiry. In this paper, one examples of popular music writ through with legal implications will be addressed in the hope of showing a little of how law and literature studies may benefit from a closer engagement with popular music. The paper will consider the murder ballads that have been popular for over a century, formed a central part of early popular music cultures and still infuse numerous genre today. Many other songs, artists or genres could have been identified but that presented here offers useful indicative models for some of the areas of law and legal phenomena that popular music might be used to look into. It is intended that the case study picked out in this paper will highlight that there is an underdeveloped scope for those with an interest in law and literature to use popular music to improve our understanding of socio-cultural outlooks on legal subjects across time and space. Such examination could help with our understanding past, present or future socio-legal phenomena.

4. Murder Ballads

Murder ballads are narratives that recount the events surrounding crimes, whether real or of legend. The ballads provide all the grisly details, usually focusing on who the victim was, why the murderer chose to kill them and how the victim was killed. They frequently tell the story from the point of view of the murderer or may otherwise seek to paint the murderer in a sympathetic light by providing context to explain their actions. Their history lies in 17th century Europe, especially England, Scotland and Scandinavia, where murder ballads were printed and sold in broadsheets but, in popular culture, murder ballads are most associated with American folk music, and are closely linked to the hillbilly, Appalachian and, especially, blues traditions as preserved for posterity in the Alan Lomax Audio Archive. Those who settled the US found tales of bloodshed from the Old World fascinating, while the lawless, tough and hard-living experienced in frontier towns and the Deep South in the 19th century made the stories starkly relevant (Underwood and Parris, 2004).

The murder ballads tend to celebrate the figures they sing about, most obviously when lionising outlaws like Billy the Kid. More generally, rebellious figures are championed for standing up to authority as seen in the many songs about John Henry. There is a marked reverence for the murderer in these songs and frequently a sense of tragedy when they are invariably punished (usually shot or hung) by an out of touch law enforcement that supposedly does not understand the heroism of the figure who resists what authority has told them to do. The popularity of murder ballads forms a foundation for the blues music that was so popular in the first half of the 20th century and retains cult status for the original artists, as the many genres they inspired, today. As a centrepiece of the folk tradition, murder ballads can be identified at the heart of contemporary American popular music, venerated and rerecorded by artists from country, rock, rap and hip hop. Many musicians will even learn how to write songs through playing murder ballads as classics or standards, thus embedding their influence. Modern murder ballads as, for example, are still written and recorded as in the successful album, Murder Ballads, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (see Newman, 2018). Such signifies the continued relevance of murder ballads, whether in formal exposition of a specific musical discipline or as a cultural artefact with wider impact. The status of murder ballads means that their content is worthy of giving due attention to. For Schechter (2005), murder ballads, as with the folk story tradition that they arose from, should be understood to reflect the social circumstances of the culture that produced them – and he sees one of the reasons they endure might be that they allow those who enjoy them the opportunity to vicariously engage in taboo fantasies no longer deemed appropriate. In this section, three such iconic murder ballads from some of the most notable artists in the history of the blues will be considered. The songs were often about a specific murder theme, violent killings of women (Tunnell, 1991).

Murder ballads are writ through with the killing of women by men (Fernandez, 2012). Casting murder ballads stock trade as femicide invokes Russell and Harme’s (2001) understanding of the term as the killing of females by males because they are female, grounded in Caputi and Russell’s (1990: 34) earlier definition that saw femicide as ‘the murder of women by men motivated by hatred, contempt, pleasure, or a sense of ownership of women’. It is women’s sexuality at the heart of the murder act in these songs, filled with numerous assumptions about how women should enact this and relate to men, with the emotion of the male narrator central to this notion of femicide. Analyses of contemporary popular music such as rap and hip hop have suggested that there is a need to explore further issues of aggressive masculinity in song to understand the socio-cultural reality of male on female violence (Hunnicutt and Andrews, 2009). Murder ballads offer an opportune means to consider the roots of such violence. The murder ballad tradition has femicide as a central concern so that, in most songs about revenge, the listener is invited to sympathise with the man who murders a woman; most often because she has been considered to have been unfaithful to him.

4.1 Shotgun Blues

In Shotgun Blues, written and performed by Lightnin’ Hopkins in the 1950s, the narrator laments on his relationship troubles and how he sees his only viable response being to take a shotgun to his “woman”. The song tells the story of how she tried to leave him, though he insists he had done nothing wrong to drive her away. The lady in question has kicked the narrator out of the home they shared and he considers that he has nothing left. The narrator reflects that his mother always told him he would be a failure and amount to nothing; now he feels he has hit rock bottom – and he blames his partner. The repeated chorus calls to the listener to bring him his shotgun and a pocket full of shells. He promises that there will be trouble and in the final verses make his intentions clear:

Well, I cried, Bye-bye, baby

You know you done me wrong

I'm gonna take my little shotgun now

And I'm gonna carry it back home

I said one in the morning

I'm gonna carry my shotgun home

Yes, I figure the best thing I can do

Why did I leave that woman alone?

The implication is that the narrator is going to go home to punish his partner for daring to stand up to him, whether he ends up killing her or just frightening her into submission. Apparently the only way to deal with the woman is through using the gun; this is what the singer had been reduced to.

4.2 You Was Born to Die

You Was Born to Die , written and recorded by Blind Willie McTell in the 1930s begins with a spoken word comment about feeling blue (sad). The singer is sore at his “woman” for “running around town” (suggesting she is seeing other men) as in the opening verse:

Don't want no woman

That run around

Stay out in the street

And like a badfoot clown

You made me love you

And you made me cry

The chorus is simply the narrator exhorting his partner to remember that she was born to die, a thinly veiled threat that she should change her philandering ways and be faithful to him. The more it is repeated, the more sinister it becomes and the listener is left to feel as though the narrator is convincing himself that he should be the one who dishes out this perceived justice on her. He talks about promises but, with the partner having broken his trust, he wants nothing more than to have her dead. The listener is told that death is all she deserves.

4.3 I’m Going to Murder my Baby

I’m Going to Murder my Baby by Pat Hare involves the singer pre-emptively addressing a jury to explain that he was going to commit murder and detailing exactly why this was acceptable. He presents a cocky image more akin to a strutting lawyer than a defendant in the dock almost showing off with what he considers to be an infallible argument in his favour. He instructs the jury “that’s what she’s like” by way of defence. The self-righteous spirit of the song is captured in the repeated refrain that:

Yes, I'm gonna murder my baby (yeah, I'm tellin' the truth now)

'Cause she don't do nothin' but cheat and lie

The narrator’s sole complaint is that his “baby” has been leaving the house early in the morning and returning late at night thus apparently breaking her promise that “she would always treat me right”. He offers no more detail than this with the manner of the narrator suggesting that this would be suitable grounds to justify his decision. This is a song with an unfortunate postscript in that, eight years after being recorded, Hare would shoot his girlfriend and, indeed, died in prison after being convicted of murder.

4.4 Women and Murder Ballads

The disregard for the law, and willingness of individuals to take matters into their own hands, may be seen as a relic of a time when the law was more remote from ordinary people’s lives and might reflect the anti-authority streak that can be said to have run through American society (Wills, 1999). Of most interest here though might be the extent to which women are frequently the victims in these ballads. The murder ballads often depict particularly unenlightened attitudes to women with much of these blues standards full of sexual jealously and violence against women. The “beautiful female murder victim” is a well-worn trope that has been identified to run through traditional British but, especially, US literature and feed directly into the murder ballads (Cohen, 1997: 277). Indeed, the content of these murder ballads reflects Poe’s belief that the death of a beautiful woman “is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (Bronfen, 1992: 59). It has been remarked that “murdering a sweetheart, rather than marrying her, is the basis of so many American ballads that foreigners must wonder whether this is our national pastime” (Cohen, 2005: 116). It would, though, be misleading to suggest that all murder ballads involved men killing women and there are a small number that reverse the dynamic and feature the woman as protagonist. Among this slight but significant collection are some of the most famous murder ballads as with Frankie and Johnnie or Henry Lee. In addition, many murder ballads recount tales of men murdering other men such as the legendary Stagger Lee in all its many incarnations.

There is, though, a strong seam of male-on-female intimate partner violence songs within the murder ballad canon and this may tell us something of interest with regards to attitudes to violence in general in America’s Deep South a century ago but, in particular, concerning the establishment of social norms of how it was appropriate to treat women in Western society. What we are presented with is femicide. In these songs, women are generally considered to get what is coming to them; we see victim-blaming so that, in modern parlance, they were considered to be asking for it. Take Devil Got My Woman by Skip James, wherein there are three people who are unfaithful – the narrator who stole the woman from his friend, the friend who stole her back and the woman herself for whom the opprobrium is saved as the only one who is cursed by the devil for her sins. These songs are still celebrated today with, for example, Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night, recounting its tale of an unfaithful woman getting her comeuppance, one of the most covered songs of all time. The blues artists who performed them are considered songwriting geniuses to be revered and looked up to, with young musicians often taught by emulating these men and their songs. This genre was a big influence on 1960s country music and can be seen in the country outlaw image adopted by revered figures such as Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, who wrote their own murder ballads. More recently, post-punk performers such as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or the Cramps have recorded whole albums of reworked murder ballads retooled for a modern audience and, the rapper Eminem, had a massive worldwide hit with a contemporary murder ballad, Stan. Such persistence works to highlight the enduring legacy of these beliefs and thus creates a context for tracing a history of violence against women over the past century and into the present day (Keathley, 1994).

Even if the regressive outlooks of murder ballads are downplayed or neutered in contemporary accounts, it is important to consider whether their influence lives on through having laid down a cultural legacy of misogyny that remains generally tolerated in mainstream popular music – creating a whole women-killing genre that packages power and control as love (Hamerlinck, 1999). Such is evident in a massive global hit single such as Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, which can be claimed to take a permissive attitude to rape as epitomised by its refrain, “I know you want it”. This type of misogyny can further be taken implicit in genres with large audiences such as rock music, where women have often been marginalised to sexual supporting roles such groupies, and is especially pervasive in more niche styles such as Jamaican dancehall, with its explicit objectification and degradation of women. Looking at murder ballads more closely could be of great benefit to legal scholars, then, with an interest in gender politics and attitudes toward gendered crimes both historically and presently. What we can see is the exposition and repetition of a particular set of values and morals in the most popular cultural forms of the countries that have greatest cultural reach. Thus it is little wonder that such norms as are established in this tradition can pass across time and space so as to be relevant outside of the original performance context. This aspect of popular culture may have lessons for how men and women see themselves and, in turn, are seen by others within the law – then as now.

5. Criminal Justice and the Value of Popular Music

This paper has argued that popular music should be given more credence among legal scholars, not simply as an effective way to illustrate a complex point or to liven up otherwise turgid prose but, rather, because it can contain valuable insights from wider society into legally relevant issues. As such, the study of popular music should be considered as an extension of existing scholarship into law and literature, in particular the approaches that look for law in literature or use literature for law and thus take influence from non-legal perspectives. By way of example, a short case study of the kind of an area that could be considered has been offered: to produce interesting insights into law in society that are valuable in and of themselves for how they can help legal scholars engage with popular understandings of crime, law and justice. Here murder ballads talked of misogyny and, in particular, femicide. Murder ballads can be considered when thinking about the sexist idea persisting in English criminal law that a woman can provoke a man to murder if she is unfaithful as per so many of these songs (Maybin, 2014). This is a question of culpability and whether the man can really be held responsible if the woman had betrayed him. Historically, murder cases involving male defendants confronted by their partner committing adultery have often seen the men treated sympathetically by the courts (Horder, 1992).

One of the most controversial areas of common law over recent decades has been, for Fitz-Gibbon (2013), the provocation defence and the way it has highlighted the gendered operation of the law of homicide. The gender bias of homicide law has particularly been seen with regards to male-perpetrated intimate homicides and the concomitantly inadequate response of the law to those situations in which battered women kill. The defence was found in the Homicide Act 1957 and based on the 1949 case of R v Duffy, [6] whereby:

Provocation is some act, done by the dead man to the accused, which would cause in any reasonable man a sudden and temporary loss of self control, rendering the accused so subject to passion as to make him not master of his mind.

As Horder (2005) noted, the provocation defence has provided an excuse for those who act in anger, through spontaneous retaliation, but did not also allow for those that were acting through as a result of being fearful of the victim. Such a discrepancy long rewarded male reactions of jealousy as to their cheating partners over female experiences in reacting to intimate partner violence. R v Mawgridge [7] , from 1707, outlined several sets of circumstances in which a murder conviction should be reduced to manslaughter including:

Where a man is taken in adultery with another man’s wife, if the husband shall stab the adulterer or knock out his brains this is bare manslaughter: for jealousy is the rage of man and adultery is the highest invasion of property.

Here, the man’s wife has been clearly deemed to be his property and the provocation defence has allowed such discriminatory norms to be reinforced. At the same time, women who have killed abusive partners after months or years of suffering have traditionally found it difficult to mount a defence, with self-defence often unavailable due to the requirements for such actions to be undertaken in the face of an imminent danger and, thereon, to be considered proportionate. For this reason, provocation has often been turned to as a potential solution but this partial defence had tended to deny such slow-burn reactions as those that present in battered woman cases, where the accumulated pressure of elongated periods of abuse suddenly becomes unbearable, perhaps as a rare opportune moment to retaliate and escape presents itself. In the 1993 case of R v Ahluwalia, a wife experienced many years of abuse from her husband and, one night, poured petrol over him while he slept and set him on fire. [8] He died from the burns but her attempt to use provocation as a defence failed as it was not deemed sudden enough and, rather, represented a considered plan. Under provocation, then, men’s anger at having their possession of women challenged was given priority over women’s fear of being abused by men.

The Law Commission (2004) offered proposals to improve the partial defences, in part influenced by the need to eradicate the gender imbalance of provocation. There duly emerged a new partial defence of loss of control to replace provocation under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Though this new offence did away with the need for the act to be sudden, introduced provisions against use for sexual fidelity as a qualifying trigger and offered a new trigger of fear, it maintained the notion of losing control, against the Law Commission’s (2004) wishes, and thus implied the need for immediacy. The Court of Appeal soon compromised on the ability of defendants to raise sexual infidelity as a trigger in R v Clinton of 2012, [9] and Horder and Fitz-Gibbon (2015) have shown that the courts have failed to adapt to the spirit of the reforms by continuing to treat the new defence as they did the old provocation, thus providing an excuse for violent male reactions to infidelity. For Fitz-Gibbon (2014), there remains a crisis in intimate partner violence as a result. As the loss of control defence has not properly rectified the gendered problems of provocation in the manner intended by the reform proposals. It remains sexist, meaning that the criminal law’s treatment of intimate partner violence must be considered an on-going issue of concern in need of further change to give women’s experience a comparable status to that of men (Norrie, 2010).

While the defence of provocation effectively allowed men to blame women for cheating, which the 2009 Act attempted to resolve, the situation following Clinton provides a lack of clarity on whether such sexist assumptions still operate within the law. In the Clinton appeal, Lord Judge, then Lord Chief Justice, said juries should be allowed to consider the fact a victim had been unfaithful as a possible provocation – in defiance of the Act that banned it as an excuse. As such, parliament says infidelity does not count and the court says it does. The case involved a meeting between an estranged husband and wife. Here, the wife told her depressed and intoxicated husband in graphic detail about her affair (and admitted to sleeping with several with other men), taunted him about a suicide website he had visited after he experienced suicidal thoughts following their break up and said that she no longer wanted to look after their children. The husband claimed that, in response to these three supposed provocations, he killed his wife. The husband killed her by repeatedly beating her on the head with a wooden baton and strangled her with a belt, taking photos of her naked body in various poses, and texted them to her lover. The trial judge held that loss of control was not available as a defence because the words relating to infidelity should be disregarded as a qualifying trigger, with the remaining factors not constituting the necessary standard of being of an “extremely grave character” nor would they cause the appellant to have a “justifiable sense of being wronged” as required. The defence of diminished responsibility was left for the jury to decide; they found him guilty of murder and he appealed.

On allowing the appeal, the judge considered the sexual infidelity exclusion in detail. He confirmed that, in cases in which sexual infidelity was the only trigger for a loss of control, the legislation required that it be disregarded but outlined that, in circumstances where other words or acts were argued to constitute a qualifying trigger the legislation should be read to allow judge and jury to consider those words or acts in the context of evidence of sexual infidelity. This decision diluted the impact of a provision designed specifically to limit the use of the loss of control defence by abusive men who kill their wives. The Court considered that the suicide taunts and statements about their children were somehow serious enough to bring in the evidence of sexual infidelity, which seems to set a far lower bar than those behind the Act would ever have conceived, which betrays the importance they saw in the infidelity. The judgment considered it unrealistic to expect juries to compartmentalise the evidence on sexual infidelity, without giving any justification considering that the trial judge found it so simple, thus taking an approach that it was seemingly so essential it would be natural to keep it in. The decision, of course, was based on the appellant’s testimony, focusing heavily on his reaction to the end of the relationship while largely ignoring the context of his violence to the victim. The judgment shows a clear distaste for the sexual infidelity exclusion, as clear in passages such as the following that seek to rationalise intimate partner violence:

Sexual infidelity has the potential to create a highly emotional situation or to exacerbate a fraught situation, and to produce a completely unpredictable, and sometimes violent response. This may have nothing to do with any notional ‘rights’ that the one may believe that he or she has over the other, and often stems from a sense of betrayal and heartbreak, and crushed dreams.

Such rationalisations almost act as apologism for such violence. The higher courts, then, have failed to follow the spirit of the reforms and persist in allowing a lopsided treatment of men and women. As such, some judges seem to have failed to shift their attitudes with the times to reflect a mainstream society where a wife is no longer considered to be an object owned by a husband. A more detailed consideration of murder ballads written a hundred years ago but still popular today among both listeners and performers might help illuminate how and why such behaviour can be accepted, thereon allowing for the development of an approach to offer an effective counterargument to the perspective that allows a woman’s actions to be held up as responsible for a man’s mental state. Perhaps looking to understand old-fashioned views calls for us to consider the messages from old-fashioned music. It allows us to access the mind-set that underlines such a belief, especially useful when it might be little articulated in everyday interaction but still form an assumption of cultural forms. Such is not to say that the Lord Chief Justice was a big Leadbelly fan but, rather, that considering deeply ingrained cultural tropes might allow for a means to pick out the values that underpin actions in and around the legal system – from the behaviour of the defendant to the decisions of the Appeal Court. The roots of the misogynistic hold on this aspect of the criminal law can be seen as played out in narrative form through looking at such cultural representations of regressive norms that did and still exist. Indeed, the overall message that emerges from the acceptance of femicide ties into the wider narrative identified by McNeil (1976) whereby media can maintain a cultural trope that can involve women-killers being presented as tragic heroes. She documented newspaper coverage of murders to highlight a common thread in reporting whereby men are given reasons for killing their female partners, even invoking Shakespeare, and the murder ballad seems to follow a similar pattern that we could pick up if we gave more credence to the lessons that can be learned from engaging with popular music.

6. Conclusion

Considering music is of value both, for gaining a perspective on law in society at the time and location of the music scene as well as allowing scholars to pick out relevance for their own society and local legal culture. As Frith (1996: 276) notes:

Music is the cultural form best able both to cross borders – sounds carry across fences and walls and oceans, across classes, races, and nations – and to define places: in clubs, scenes, and raves, listening on headphones, radio, and in the concert hall, we are only where the music takes us.

In the light of this wider application, is also possible to appropriate the insight and use the songs to explore current issues in the law. Looking at the approach to men who kill women and tying this into the long history of such acts in popular music is but one example to show how we can find connections that are not always obvious but could help us bring more depth to understanding if probed further. Legal scholars generally should be open-minded to taking cues from popular music as here where the lens of murder ballads has been offered as a means to get to the root of a current unresolved tension in the criminal justice system. This paper has introduced one small example that could be developed further in the future to help inform and progress discussions around this type of violence, looking at how femicide appears in song might offer fertile ground for scholars interested in working on intimate partner violence. What impact does the legacy of this cultural inheritance hold today on society and its key institutions? Why does popular culture continue to maintain socially regressive – often socially unacceptable – values? How can challenging and dangerous norms in cultural forms be tackled for the good of society?

There will be innumerable other legal issues that occur in popular music, such as the unequal treatment of ethnic minorities as discussed at length by rappers, but the example of femicide is offered here as a start. In discussing these genres, the paper should not be seen as suggesting that the law should be shaped by popular music nor that songs should have any kind of authority for jurists but simply that songs are a barely tapped resource that may provide useful utility in encouraging legal scholars to consider social trends outside of their immediate purview. Law and society research could benefit from taking popular music a little more seriously and it would be interesting to see further enquiry consider songs, acts and scenes in more depth than was possible in this paper in order to see whether the potential of this treatment could be realised and how it might impact on scholarship. Fundamentally, popular music should be considered to provide a similar degree of context for the law as any more canonical piece of literature and thus deserves greater attention from scholars interested in law and humanities.

*Cardiff School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University


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[1] For example, take the Cardozo Law Review special edition “Symposium: The Modes of Law: Music and Legal Theory – An Interdisciplinary Workshop” from 1999. This fascinating volume was full of interesting insights on the relationship between law and music but, overwhelmingly, had a bias towards classical forms, which is not to criticise but to identify a space that could be filled by alternative foci.

[2] As one of the numerous works on Dylan see, for example, Geary (1999).

[3] For a strong example of the role popular must can play in society see Roux-Kemp (2014).

[4] See, also, Bridgewater et al (2015).

[5] This is a similar situation found in the world of video games (Newbery-Jones, 2015).

[6] R v Duffy [1949] 1 All ER 932

[7] Reg. v. Mawgridge [1707] Keil 119.

[8] R v Ahluwalia [1993] 96 Cr App R 133.

[9] R v Clinton [2012] EWCA Crim 2.