Capital punishment has been the subject of countless ballads, folk tunes, rock staples, and rap hits since outlaws were first brought to the gallows. As long as execution has been a possible consequence, singers and songwriters have lamented the possibilities that can lead to such a harrowing demise.
From goth rocker Nick Cave, to metal legends Metallica and Iron Maiden, to folk activist Pete Seeger, to late rapper Tupac Shaker, haunting songs about the executioner span many genres. Some songs about capital punishment, like Led Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole," are adapted from traditional melodies that have been passed down for centuries. Some, like Elvis Costello's "Let Him Dangle," turn real stories into unforgettable ballads.
Regardless of their purpose, these songs about execution are nothing if not distressing.
In Heaven His throne is made of gold
The ark of His Testament is stowed
A throne from which I'm told
All history does unfold
Down here it's made of wood and wire
And my body is on fire
And God is never far away
The Story: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds recorded "The Mercy Seat" in 1988 for the album Tender Prey. Critics theorize that the lyrics draw on the rhetoric of both the Old and New Testaments as Cave tells a story about a man awaiting execution. The phrase "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" in the third verse and repeated later in the song is reminiscent of Old Testament law. The convict in question seems to wonder if he is truly deserving of the punishment he faces, and he sings that he's not afraid to face his end.
As the song progresses, however, and the convict grows closer to his inevitable demise, he begins to question his philosophy, and wonders instead about the forgiveness granted by the "ragged stranger" who "died upon the cross." By the end of the song, he confesses that he's afraid he "told a lie."
The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom
And I stood up to say good-bye like all the rest
And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell
"Let my guitar-playing friend do my request"
The Story: Merle Haggard spent years in and out of jail for petty crimes, beginning with juvenile detention at age 11. He was eventually sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin State Prison for burglary, though he only ended up serving a few of those years. In 1958, he heard Johnny Cash perform at the prison, which inspired him to focus on his own music career.
Haggard also befriended Caryl Chessman and James Rabbit during his stay at San Quentin. Both Chessman and Rabbit were eventually executed. "Sing Me Back Home" tells the story of an inmate who asks the warden to let his friend sing his final song as he's escorted to the chamber.
Wait for the sign
To flick the switch of death
It's the beginning of the end
Sweat, chilling cold
As I watch death unfold
Consciousness my only friend
The Story: Metallica recorded Ride the Lightning in 1984 while they were struggling to stay afloat. It is their second full-length album, and it has since become a foundational piece of their discography. The title song takes the perspective of someone who sits in an electric chair waiting for their final moments.
Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett told Rolling Stone that he was reading Stephen King's The Stand while they were working on the album, and in one passage, a character refers to death row as waiting to "ride the lightning." Hammett thought, "Wow, what a great song title," and the rest is history.
Your brother brought me silver
Your sister warmed my soul
But now I laugh and pull so hard
And see you swinging on the gallows pole
The Story: Led Zeppelin adapted their haunting song about a maiden pleading for someone to free her from the gallows pole from a traditional tune recorded by blues guitarist Leadbelly as "Gallis Pole." The earliest version of the song is centuries old and is titled "The Maid Freed from the Gallows."