Ann Powers

Songs For Troy Davis: Why Musicians Take On Death Row

Visual expression of some of the sentiments in three songs about Troy Davis. This shot is from the steps of the Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta on Sept. 20. i i

hide captionVisual expression of some of the sentiments in three songs about Troy Davis. This shot is from the steps of the Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta on Sept. 20.

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
Visual expression of some of the sentiments in three songs about Troy Davis. This shot is from the steps of the Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta on Sept. 20.

Visual expression of some of the sentiments in three songs about Troy Davis. This shot is from the steps of the Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta on Sept. 20.

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

When three songs on the same subject arrive in my inbox in rapid succession — and the subject is not love, sex or partying, but a current event — I take notice. The media provides us with a constant barrage of information — why are so many reaching for this particular story as it floats by in the air? Often it's not so much because of the content of the tale but because its shape is uniquely suited for artistic interpretation.

This past week the case of Georgia state prisoner Troy Davis caught the ear of the nation and of a surprising variety of musicians. Awaiting execution, now scheduled for today, for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer, Davis has maintained his innocence for more than 20 years. Individuals and organizations ranging from the pope to the NAACP and Amnesty International have taken up his call for clemency. Others, including the victim's family, have strongly advocated for his execution.

As Davis' situation became front-page news, I received notice of three very different songs about him: a hip-hop track by Jasiri X, "I Am Troy Davis," built around the slogan favored by Davis' supporters; the bluesy "Song for Troy Davis" by Nellie McKay and "State of Georgia," by the alternative rock band State Radio. These songs all advocate for Davis, but in different ways: The rap track samples the convict's own voice to encourage identification with his position. McKay's torchy ballad presents her as a lover, waiting for her man to be freed, connecting with historic voices of artists like Billie Holiday. State Radio's song offers vehement protest in the U2 tradition: It's a call to the streets.

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It's not often that such stylistically divergent artists are drawn to the same topic at the same moment. Each got there a different way: State Radio, whose music is rooted in leftist activism, learned about Davis through its relationship with Amnesty International and has been addressing his situation in songs since 2009. Nellie McKay was spurred to write by a sense of urgency surrounding Davis' impending execution date. Jasiri X, like State Radio, often writes on political themes: One thing that's made his track, "I Am Troy Davis (T.R.O.Y.)," a favorite on hip-hop blogs is its deft use of a sample of the inmate's own recorded voice (another is its reliance on the beat from a classic track about family and the death of a friend by Pete Rock and CL Smooth, "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)"). Many other artists, from the Indigo Girls to Harry Belafonte and Big Boi, have lent their names to Davis' cause. But it was the range of these few musical responses that caught my ear.

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It's not my job as a music critic to comment on the Davis case. I've been interested for a while, though, in how rich contemporary songwriters find this thematic vein. A decade ago I wrote a piece for The New York Times about the anti-death penalty work being done by various musicians, including the hip-hop artist Michael Franti, the country-rock activist Steve Earle and rockers like Jon Langford of The Mekons and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. Their artistic efforts sometimes focused on one prisoner (the recently freed West Memphis 3 were favorites), and sometimes addressed the larger issues surrounding capital punishment. But the artistic framework remained the same: Artists wrote or performed songs that told in detail of the horrors of crime and mirror-image indignities of punishment.

As a casual collector of songs about crime and punishment, I've found plenty that, like the songs written for Troy Davis, cull from real life. Old ballads like "Tom Dooley" became standards and lost their particulars over time, but were ripped from the headlines just like more contemporary tunes. Leadbelly wrote a bitter song about the Scottsboro Boys, and Woody Guthrie's "Two Good Men" mourned Sacco and Vanzetti. Bob Dylan famously protested against the murder conviction of boxer Rubin Carter with his 1976 song "Hurricane." Many hip-hop musicians have expressed support for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. The 1996 soundtrack to the film Dead Man Walking, about the relationship between the nun Helen Prejean and the condemned prisoner Matthew Poncelet, inspired many great songs, including Bruce Springsteen's title track.

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The list goes on: Elvis Costello's "Let Him Dangle" is just one of many folkish songs about Derek Bentley, a developmentally disabled Englishman hanged for murder in 1953 and later posthumously pardoned. Common's "Song for Assata" samples the voice of Assata Shakur, Tupac's step-aunt, a member of the Black Panther Party who was convicted on murder charges and eventually fled to Cuba. "To a Black Boy," by Danger Mouse and Murs, took up the cause of Marcus Dixon, the pro football player who was convicted of rape as a teenager after having consensual sex with his white girlfriend (the charges were later overturned). There are also many songs about political prisoners: Peter Gabriel's "Biko," The Pogues' "Birmingham Six," and U2's "Walk On" are a few examples.

Prison stories abound with the qualities that make up a good ballad. Focused on complex protagonists, with a vivid setting and a narrative arc that may lead to the ultimate happy or sad ending — freedom or execution — accounts of famous trials and their outcomes have inspired songwriters for centuries. Once they were just one aspect of the broadside tradition that made music of the news. But these days, we don't hear that many tales of soldiers or adventurers or even conventional murder ballads recounting the transgressions that land people in jail. It sometimes seems that prison has become the primary site of topical song. For some reason, its fascinations haven't faded.

Why is this? Perhaps because the kind of outsiderness that the prisoner experiences — at least as artists imagine it — is easy to identify with. It's singular, in contrast to the soldier's willing choice to efface her individuality within a group. It's contemplative — lots of time to sit and think about what you've done (or haven't done) in that dark cell. And it's all about mulling over a particular set of memories and projections to try to fashion the truth from them.

Imagining the mental state of a prisoner, especially one in a situation as dire as awaiting execution on death row, can be irresistible to somebody so involved in the artistic process. Obviously there's a world of difference between the two. One involves real mortality, a host of external forces and an institutional process that may or may not play out fairly. The other is internal and leads to nothing that could kill you. Yet artists, who often imagine themselves as spiritually if not physically isolated from normal society, may find in the prisoner's narrative the most consequential representation of their own position: a voice struggling to express itself, crying out to be understood.

Whatever social circumstances surround a particular prisoner's story, artists will always be drawn by that core feeling. The way a story is told — in a courtroom, in the media, in a song — means everything.

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