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Music and the Law, Part 2

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The following post is cross posted on the In the Muse: Performing Arts Blog.

As promised, we present Part 2 of our look into Music and the Law where we polled our staff to determine their favorite songs/musical works regarding the law.  The submissions were very diverse!  Here we take a look at those that fit outside the pop/rock genre, including classics, musicals, and a few other varieties of music.

Photo by Betty Lupinacci

Shameema Rahman introduced us to a song based on a Bengali case: Khudiram Bose vs Emperor, 3 Ind. Cas. 625 (1908). “To honor the 18 year old’s death, poet Pitambar Das wrote and composed the popular Bengali song “Ek Baar Bidaye De Ma” – a song that resonates the passion the young boy had for his motherland.”

Brandon Fitzgerald said:

I listen to a lot of jazz and country western music from the 1950’s and 60’s so I decided to start my search there. The first is one by the pioneering female country legend Kitty Wells entitled “Will Your Lawyer Talk to God?” The other is “My Attorney Bernie” written by Dave Frishberg, a prolific composer and talented jazz pianist best remembered for writing “I’m Just a Bill” (of Schoolhouse Rock fame and also relevant to your blog post [Note from author — see final entry, below]). “My Attorney Bernie” is funny and clever and I really enjoy Blossom Dearie’s version of it.

We have more in the country space from Debbie Keysor who likes the Reba McEntire version of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”

Luis Acosta offered:  My favorite is a song called “Fotheringay,” recorded in 1969 by the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention, which is about Mary, Queen of Scots waiting to be executed after her trial for treason.

Emily Carr, just back from Ireland, cannot stop singing the folk ballad Grace (she heard the Merry Ploughboys play it live and fell in love with the song) which tells the story of Grace Gifford who married her fiancé Joseph Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol only a few hours before he was executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising.

Janice Hyde chose Arlo Guthrie’s classic “Alice’s Restaurant“.

Friend of the Law Library, Hope O’Keefe, offered us a mix of folk and rock songs:

I grew up on protest songs and folk songs. It’s what ultimately sent me to law school.

Geordie, Childe Ballad 209, about a woman begging for clemency: “And then she strolled through the marble halls, before the judge and jury. Down on a bended knee she falls, crying for the life of her Geordie.”

Woody Guthrie, Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd: “Some will rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen.” And Deportee: “The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon…All of my friends, are scattered like  dry leaves; the radio said they were just deportees.”

Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues: “Killed a man in Reno, just to see him die…now I’m stuck in Folsom Prison…”

Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a Changin: “Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call…”

Joan Baez, Prison Trilogy: “The warden said you won’t remain here, but it seems a state retainer claims another ten years of your life…”

Classical music aficionado Jennifer Gonzalez presented us with a fascinating history of composers who had trouble with the law:

Perhaps it’s my classical music upbringing, but what immediately came to mind for me were the musical pieces written by composers who were imprisoned or had legal troubles.

Well-known composers Bach (1685-1750), Beethoven (1770-1827), Schubert (1797-1828), and Wagner (1813-1883) were all rumored to have had legal troubles (mostly related to alcohol or contract disputes). Likewise, Stravinsky (1882-1971), composer of “The Rite of Spring” and “The Firebird Suite,” was told he could be fined $100 and possibly arrested for his controversial changing of a chord in the U.S. National Anthem.

Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was a suffragette sentenced to two months in prison who was found conducting fellow inmates with a toothbrush.

Messiaen (1908-1992) wrote “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” in 1940 while in a war camp where it was also performed.

And Michael Tippett (1905-1998), who composed “A Child Of Our Time” in response to Kristallnacht, was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector/pacifist in World War II.

Some classical composers were able to compose in adverse political environments. Three of my favorites, Prokofiev (1891-1953), Khachaturian (1903-1978), and Shostakovich (1906-1975), were denounced by the Soviet Politburo in the climate after World War II. Soviet denouncement meant that works by those composers were censored or outright banned from performance, while the composer’s family and friends were exposed to increased scrutiny. Each of their works is a reflection of treatment by Stalin and the Soviet regime. Shostakovich is particularly interesting in his use of musical sarcasm to camouflage his emotions and politics within the works. I have fond memories of researching and performing the works of these composers, especially Shostakovich’s “Fifth”, “Seventh”, and “Tenth” Symphonies; Khachaturian’s “Second” Symphony; and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet“, “Peter and the Wolf”, and “Flute Sonata in D“.

For the opera crowd we have Leslie Schaefer’s classical music submissions:

The Beggars Opera“, “The Threepenny Opera“, “The Mikado” (of course there will be a number of G&S works), and “Pagliacci” (which had a plagiarism lawsuit as well). Maryland Opera Studio staged three one act operas and called the program “crime and punishment.” Those three: Menoti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief”; Ravel “L’enfant et les sortileges”; and Rossini’s “L’occasione fa il ladro.”

She also had several other suggestions:

These are a few that I haven’t seen on the lists quite as often. My first thought was “Gee, Officer Krupke” from “West Side Story.” I guess I started singing it as soon I heard the cast recording. It’s a sarcastic snapshot of the juvenile justice system USA circa 1950s. I also sang “What was your name in the states?”, a folk song from the California gold rush days. America has always been about starting over for whatever reasons. This song asks if you had legal difficulties. It’s on Smithsonian Folkways record and Youtube lists a Debbie Reynolds version (maybe from “How the West Was Won”?). I also sang one from a Marais and Miranda record about “Sitting in Jail” (“oh, it’s hard, hard when you’re sitting in jail”).

Other opera enthusiasts proffered the following:

Margaret gave us

The Marriage of Figaro” (Le Nozze di Figaro).  The opera itself is about the “droit du seigneur,” a feudal right which allowed a lord to sleep the first night with the bride of his vassals.  A subplot involves Figaro defaulting on a contract he had made with an older woman, Marcellina – the contract had bound Figaro to marry Marcellina if Figaro did not repay the money he borrowed.  Happily, in the third act, it is revealed that Marcellina is in fact Figaro’s mother and Dr. Bartolo, who was Marcellina’s counsel, is Figaro’s father.  Though the plot is perhaps somewhat frothy, the music is sublime and the resolution of these legal issues helps drive the plot.

We had a few people nominate Gilbert & Sullivan works including “The Mikado,” for which Jim Martin offered this tune: “Use And Someday it May Happen/I’ve Got a Little List,” “which is often readapted for current situations such as this”; and “Trial by Jury,” listed by both Jim Martin and Barbara Sanders.

More along the lines of musicals, Walter Foggie said: “One of my favorite musicals is “Chicago”, so I will submit “Cell Block Tango” as one of my favorite legal/law songs.”

And Charles Dove agrees with Leslie, above, that we must include “Officer Krupke” from “West Side Story.”

Jim Martin also offered us “Non-Stop from Hamilton, which “references the famous Manhattan Wells Murder in the first minute, a case where Burr, Hamilton and Henry Livingston were co-counsels for the defendant.”

And finally, my favorite submission: Brian Kuhagen offers up a tune from Schoolhouse Rock – “I’m Just a Bill.”

Did your favorite make the list?  If nothing else, we hope this gives you a few more tunes to hum this holiday season.


  1. Something about the new President-Elect recalls the lyrics to Warren Zevon’s classic ‘Lawyers Guns and Money”
    ‘I went home with the waitress, the way I always do, how was I to know that she was with the Russians too?” (And so on..)

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