Death Songs Vs. Death Penalty

Langford, Earle, Case fight capital punishment with murder ballads

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The Pine Valley Cosmonauts, who consist of Jon Langford and Steve Goulding of the Mekons/Waco Brothers and former Bottle Rocket Tom Ray, will release their third album, The Executioner's Last Songs, on March 19th on Bloodshot Records. As with their previous tributes to Bob Wills and Johnny Cash, the Cosmonauts have enlisted a rotating roster of guest vocalists, and this time out the material is a collection of songs of murder, execution and mob justice. And it's delivered with a wink, as partial proceeds will benefit Artists Against the Death Penalty and the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

"I'm just really horrified by it," the Welsh-born Chicago native Langford says of the death penalty. "There was a big movement up here in Illinois, and it's one of the first states to issue a moratorium. The inequities of the system were so glaring. I have a son, a four-year-old boy, and finally felt I should exercise my voice in American politics as much as I can. Previously, people have said to me, 'You're not from here. You should shut your mouth.' I just feel like it's quite compelling for me, because it's not something that exists in Europe."

Despite the moratorium issued by Governor George H. Ryan, the cause remains urgent in Illinois, as his term ends next year. "He's made himself fairly unpopular by following his conscience rather than his party's rules," Langford says. Langford also credits a Chicago attorney named Dick Cunningham with being a driving force behind the album. Cunningham, who was killed last year, was largely responsible in the push for the moratorium and freed a number of wrongly convicted men from Death Row. "I wanted to do something for him," Langford says. "I've been involved in several kind of lefty causes, but I never really worked with people who actually got things changed. This guy's a hero. He got in on the inside and rolled his sleeves up and pushed for what he did. He's not a kind of Weatherman [laughs], blowing a few things up in the Sixties and hiding for twenty years. This is another way to look at political action. I think there's so many unsung heroes who've given up on the romantic angle and have actually enacted change."

For Langford, the project started as a one-off gig in Chicago. "I fell afoul, when we did the original benefit, of some humorless lefties who didn't really get it," he says. "But it was encouraging to me that some of the guys who had been on Death Row came, and they totally got it [laughs]. They thought it was hysterical. It's gallows humor, I guess. But it made sense to me and everybody else who played."

Langford went into the project with about a dozen songs he wanted to include, but for the most part, he left selections up to the singers. The result is a range that leans heavily on old Appalachian murder/death songs including traditional "Tom Dooley" (covered by Steve Earle) and "Knoxville Girl" (the Handsome Family's Brett Sparks) bluegrass father Bill Monroe's "Walls of Time" (Paul Burch) and the old-time country of Hank Williams and Fred Rose's "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" (Rosie Flores). The collection also taps Seventies country, including covers of Charlie Pride's "The Snakes Crawl at Night," Johnny Paycheck's "Pardon Me, I've Got Someone to Kill," and even art-punk, the Adverts' "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," which was selected after the Cosmonauts decided to jettison Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat," after a definitive recent reading of the song by Johnny Cash.

Langford and a number of the vocalists will perform some of the songs at Austin's South by Southwest Music Conference in March. And having whittled thirty tracks down to eighteen for The Executioner's Last Songs, he already has a head start on a second volume, which he does plan to release. Mark Eitzel and Lambchop's Kurt Wagner are among those on board for the next one. "I don't want to say anyone who hasn't done their bit yet in case they don't," Langford says. "Suddenly they'll have a blinding vision that the death penalty is marvelous and they don't want anything to do with it [laughs]. But, essentially, I tried to think of this one as a bluegrassy, country sort of thing and then the next volume will be a bit darker a bit more electric."

The track listing for The Executioner's Last Songs:
"Knoxville Girl," Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family
"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive," Rosie Flores
"Gary Gilmore's Eyes," Dean Schlabowske, Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan and Tracey Dear
"The Snakes Crawl at Night," Janet Bean of Freakwater
"Tom Dooley," Steve Earle
"The Hangman's Song," Christa Meyer and Tom Kelley of Puerto Muerto
"Pardon Me, I've Got Someone to Kill," Lonesome Bob
"Poor Ellen Smith," Neko Case
"Miss Otis Regrets," Jenny Toomey
"Judgement Day," Johnny Dowd and Jon Langford
"The Great State of Texas," Chris Ligon
"Sing Me Back Home," Edith Frost
"Oh Death," Diane Izzo
"Hanged Man," Rick Sherry of Devil in the Woodpile
"The Plans We Made," Jon Langford and Sally Timms
"25 Minutes to Go," Frankie and Johnny Navin of the Aluminum Group
"Idiot Whistle," Tony Fitzpatrick
"Walls of Time," Paul Burch