Bad Man Ballads: Scoundrels, Thugs & Killers
by Jason Gubbels | August 15, 2013
The Bad Man Ballad is hardly an American creation -- songs of rebels and renegades dominate the Irish folk canon, and the narcocorrido ballads of Mexico glorify the protagonists of blood-soaked drug wars. But the tradition of Stagger Lee does seem uniquely Yankee, especially when you consider the way a story about an African American pimp in St. Louis shooting another man over a hat became one of the most outsized depictions of violent machismo in the culture.
Distinct from Appalachian murder ballads and cowboy anthems even while encompassing aspects of both, Bad Man (and sometimes Woman) Ballads celebrate scoundrels and murderers, bullies and saviors, thieves and outcasts, always with a hint (or more) of sympathy no matter how dastardly the deed in question. Some songs allow the performer to live vicariously through the bad man (Swamp Dogg's lascivious "Wife Sitter"); others walk such a dicey moral line that even listeners feel implicated (The Rolling Stones' "Midnight Rambler," aka, The Most Evil Song in the Universe).
This playlist looks at a century's worth of antisocial behavior celebrated in song, from Bert Williams' 1922 "Brother Low Down" (dastardly preacher) to Ashley Monroe's 2013 "Monroe Suede" (steals a pickup truck at age 14 in protest of the minimum wage). In between, you'll hear of renegade lawmen (Drive-By Truckers' "The Buford Stick" and Anthrax's "I Am the Law"), bar fights (Carl Perkins' "Dixie Fried" and L7's "Packin' a Rod") and laments for bad guys with good hearts (The Replacements' "Johnny's Gonna Die" and The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack"). And while hip-hop and heavy metal get plenty of blame for celebrating violence, few songs in either genre are as psychotic as Pat Hare's "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" (1954) or Roy Brown's "Butcher Pete" (1950).