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Music and the Law, Part 1

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In the Muse is happy to cross post the following piece by Betty Lupinacci, Processing Section Head in the Law Library. Her blog post was originally published on the Law Library’s blog, In Custodia Legis: Law Librarians of Congress.


As much as I love Christmas carols, I’m usually tired of them by mid-December as they seem to have been playing continuously since before Thanksgiving.  Well, it’s the Law Library to the rescue.  We polled our staff for their favorite songs about the law or that somehow relate to law.

Even though it was my suggestion, I was a bit apprehensive about this post.  Would my colleagues rise to the occasion?  Or would everyone have the same 2 or 3 responses?  I needn’t have worried.  The variety and scope of their submissions was amazing.  So much so, in fact, that we’re splitting it up into two separate posts.  Part 1 (herein) contains those entries that would fall under the rock or pop genres.  Part 2 will contain the classics, musicals and a few other varieties of music.


Photo by Betty Lupinacci

I was surprised that it took ten submissions before anyone mentioned the latter of Aga Pukniel‘s choices:  “I am torn between Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” and Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock”. These are more like protests songs against injustice, and therefore I like them.”

Kelly chose one from a band that I really like:

I’m not sure if it’s my favorite law-related song, but it is one that immediately came to mind because it was very popular yet quite subversive.  “Beds are Burning,” the 1987 song by Australian band Midnight Oil is a protest song that was inspired by the Aboriginal land rights movement.  It includes the following lines:

The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share

 The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back

Peter Garrett, the front man for Midnight Oil, later became a politician, serving as a member of the Australian House of Representatives between 2004 and 2013, including a period as the environment minister in the Labor government.

The song “I Fought the Law” got two votes, but each for a different version:

Adrian Korz prefers The Clash, stating that “Having a bunch of cheeky rebellious English lads singing about this topic seems to indicate that they knew something about being on the losing legal side.”

While Don Simon chose the Bobby Fuller version, saying:  “It always reminded that you cannot fight City Hall.  I first heard it in the ‘60’s.”

Kimberly Allen gave us two songs: Bob Dylan’s, “Hurricane” and “Long Black Veil”, “a 1959 country ballad, written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin and originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell. A saga song, “Long Black Veil” is told from the point of view of an executed man falsely accused of murder.   Although I am not familiar with the original, I have heard many contemporary artists sing it, including one of my favorites, The Band.”

And Andrew reminded me not to forget about Jay-Z’s Magna Carta album which was featured in our 2014 exhibit “Magna Carta:  Muse and Mentor.”

Jim Martin offered us “Let Him Dangle by Elvis Costello.  It is about the notorious Derek Bentley case…”.

Jennifer had the most unique spin on the topic.  Saying that she couldn’t pick just one, she gave several titles that invoked legal topics without necessarily using any words or phrases specific to law, or songs that wound up the subject of court cases or other legal dealings.  (We’re fudging the rock/pop restriction here with her first and last choices, but I really liked following her train of thought.)

Leonard Cohen, “The Law”. He just died and I’m listening to him more than usual, just like everyone else.

Randy Newman, “Short People”—appropriately enough, from the album Little Criminals.  It’s law-related because in 1978 Maryland delegate Isaiah Dixon tried to  make it illegal to play “Short People” on the radio in the State of Maryland. The assistant AG advised Dixon that this would be a violation of the First Amendment.

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” from Thriller—paternity issues and child support.

Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” for inspiring what’s probably the most famous Supreme Court case involving a popular song? (Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music)

Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear.”  He was directed by the judge in his divorce case to provide the proceeds from his next album to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, as part of their divorce settlement. The album Here, My Dear is what Gaye produced. At the time it was issued, the album was  panned, but critics have since found more to like about it.

Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley” (traditional). This folk song is about the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster in Wilkes County, North Carolina allegedly by Tom Dula.

Cutest submission goes to Wendy Zeldin for “Every Breath You Take“, not at all about the law, but “it’s by the Police”!

And finally, Lauren Western, a fellow David Bowie superfan, offered up the appropriately titled “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” as well as Judas Priest’s “Breakin’ the Law“, “…of course.  First heard it when I was three.”, making hers our most precocious entry.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will appear here on December 13, just about the time you get tired of dogs barking out “Jingle Bells”.

Comments (3)

  1. I’d like to add a vote for Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury.” (1875)

  2. I really enjoyed this article and will be looking forward to December 13th for part two.

  3. How can this list blithely pass over all of the music related to prohibition–whether of alcohol or other controlled circumstances? And how about the entire list of protest music related to the injustices of both Civil Rights and the tragedy of the US in Vietnam. That’s a line of lawlessness that runs from “Four Dead in Ohio” through “Born in the USA” to “Copperhead Road”.

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