Jailhouse rock: how history’s crimes live on in music

From Maggie May to Ronnie Kray, crooks have long inspired songs, as a new book proves

In the 1960s when Sir Stephen Sedley, the former appeal court judge, was a young barrister, he successfully defended a number of Travellers in Kent who had been charged under an old law of “being a Gypsy encamped on a highway”. Getting the charges thrown out gave him status and an introduction to local singers who taught him some of the songs featured in Who Killed Cock Robin? British Folk Songs of Crime and Punishment, the book he has just co-authored with the musician Martin Carthy.

It explores the origins and history of ancient ballads dealing with the wilder sides of life. There are some familiar songs, such as the Black Velvet Band, which was originally about a young man transported for pickpocketing in Belfast, and there is an 1870 version of Maggie May, who is punished the same way for stealing sailors’ clothes. But what about songs of crime and punishment today?

A formal portrait of Kate Bush at the height of her fame, arms folded and dressed in black against a red background
Kate Bush’s song There Goes a Tenner celebrates blowing up a safe and refers to a lookout driver with his engine running. Photograph: Peter Mazel/Sunshine/REX Photograph: Beverley Goodway/REX

There are some constants – such as murder, theft and prison – between the ancient and the modern songs but Who Killed Cock Robin? deals with other issues, including the gallows, piracy, poaching and incest, that are less likely to appear today, when drug smuggling and bank robbery feature regularly. So far there seems to have been no ballad celebrating cybercrime or bemoaning the imposition of an electronic tag, but it can only be a matter of time.

The Hatton Garden robbery, the £14m theft from London safe deposit boxes carried out in 2015 by an elderly gang of criminals – the so-called “diamond wheezers” – has led to the ska song It’s the Hatton Garden Job, by Arthur Kay & the Clerks. It ponders on the sentences still being served by some of those convicted: “Wonder what they’re thinking / If they ever get out again / Will they buy us a decent striker? / Or a villa down in Spain?”

The Great Train Robbery of 1963 led to many songs. One of the first was an eponymous ballad recorded by the Scottish actor Joe Brady, who played Jock Weir in the BBC police series Z Cars. Another song, Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds?, features on the album Outlaw by the British band the Alabama 3, whose song Woke Up This Morning provided the theme tune to the television crime series The Sopranos.

Playing the harmonica on the track is musician and sculptor Nick Reynolds, the son of Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds. “If you listen to the track, you’ll hear towards the end my dad’s voice reading out the names of lots of famous American robbers [including Jesse James and Butch Cassidy],” said Nick Reynolds last week. He also recalled train robber Ronnie Biggs recording No One Is Innocent with the Sex Pistols in Rio de Janeiro in 1978 when Biggs was still on the run.

Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds is the subject of an Alabama 3 song
Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds is the subject of the Alabama 3 song Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds? Photograph: David Newell Smith/The Observer

Billy Bragg put Woody Guthrie’s song The Unwelcome Guest to music and recorded it with Wilco in 2012. It gives highwaymen a sympathetic hearing – “I never took food / From the widows and orphans / And never a hardworking man I oppressed” – and was played at the north London funeral in 2013 of “king of the cat burglars” Peter Scott.

The Clash’s song Bankrobber – “My daddy was a bankrobber / But he never hurt nobody / He just loved to live that way / And he loved to steal your money” – was released as a single in 1980 and a couple of years later Kate Bush gave us There Goes a Tenner, a celebration of blowing up a safe that refers to a lookout driver parked outside with his engine running; there is even a video re-enactment, complete with explosion and floating banknotes.

The late cannabis smuggler Howard Marks is the subject of at least three songs, including Stereophonics’ An Audience with Mr Nice, and Hangin’ with Howard Marks by Super Furry Animals.

Lithuanian-Scottish safecracker Johnny Ramensky
Lithuanian-Scottish safecracker Johnny Ramensky, who became a second world war hero after being released from prison, was celebrated in two melodies. Photograph: ANL/Shutterstock

On a darker note, Bob Geldof co-wrote the Boomtown Rats’ hit single I Don’t Like Mondays about the school shooting in San Diego, California, in 1979 carried out by a teenage girl, who gave that line as an explanation as to why she had carried out the killings.

Sedley and Carthy refer to many Scottish ballads, such as Macpherson’s Farewell, about the infamous brigand and fiddle player who was hanged at the Cross of Banff in 1700. That tradition has continued. The Lithuanian-Scottish safecracker Johnny Ramensky, who died after a stroke in Perth prison in 1972, is the subject of two famous songs. Ramensky was released from jail during the second world war, joined 30 Commando and was dropped behind enemy lines, where his technical skills were used to break into Axis safes. After the war, however, he returned to his old ways and spent many more years inside. This led to The Ballad of Johnny Ramensky, written by the late Labour MP Norman Buchan, and Let Ramensky Go, written by Roddy McMillan and recorded by many artists, including Josh MacRae: “Open up your prison gates / And let Ramensky go.”

Last month the Blind Beggar pub in east London, where in 1966 Ronnie Kray shot dead George Cornell, hosted a NHS charity fundraiser organised by Maureen Flanagan, a former model and old pal of the Kray family. The singer Gary Driscoll entertained the guests with renditions of the song The Old East End Tonight, which refers to the pub by name and suggests that, had the Kray twins just stayed at the Repton boxing club, where they learned to fight, “they’d be drinking in the old East End tonight”.

Sedley’s interest in the ballads was inspired, as he explains in his introduction, by trying to keep Gypsies and Travellers out of jail. Now that Priti Patel, the home secretary, is promoting the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which would effectively criminalise that way of life once more, perhaps there will soon be new additions to the long and rich tradition of putting crime and punishment to music.


Duncan Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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