Hey Joe and Nellie Kane

Went out last night just to make a little rout / Met Little Sadie and I shot her down…

Early one mornin while makin the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down

Hey Joe, where you goin with that gun in your hand? I’m goin down to shoot my old lady / I caught her messin round with another man…

There are endless variations on this song. Nobody’s quite sure who first wrote it. I’m told it’s about cocaine and what it does to a guy. Or the beautiful chord progressions, the beautiful melody. Or it’s just the blues. Whatever it’s about, the words are incidental.

So they say. But it doesn’t seem accidental, the overripe American (probably global) tradition of man-kills-woman murder ballads. The musical narration of meting out capital punishment to an unfaithful woman, or to a woman for no given reason at all– just happened, I s’pose, like rain, or a stubbed toe. It’s not that singing about death or even homicide bothers me per se. It’s the frequency of the scenario, and the one-sidedness. If I have to have a murder ballad, at least give me Gillian Welch’s Caleb Meyer, which concerns a woman slaying the man attempting to rape her:

Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gon’ wear them rattling chains / But when I go to sleep at night, don’t you call my name...

Self-defense, as opposed to the man-kills-woman lyric… which seems to happen a lot more often when you sleep with that lovin .44 ‘neath your head.

People also stick up for the Hey Joe tradition by mentioning that the perp never walks free. The law invariably catches up with him:

I begin to think what a deed I’d done / I grabbed my hat and away I run / Made a good run but a little too slow / They overtook me in Jericho…

But a cry of remorse, a bit of sorry, maybe even some amends? No, not so much as a politician’s apology (“I regret that some have felt offended by my actions”). We hear I shouted Lordy Lordy have mercy on me only when the judge declares that heavy prison sentence.

There are lots of songs about killed love, lost love, spurned love, ruined love, unrequited love, idealized love. Pain waters music, and music eases pain. But every so often there’s a song born of joy. Simple mutual respect as an antidote to the endless songs of power and revenge. A couple weeks ago my sweetheart brought home an old melody about, of all things, a blended family. It’s another one where nobody’s sure of the author–some say Tim O’Brien, others attribute it farther back.

As a young man I went riding out on the western plain / In the state of North Dakota I met my Nellie Kane, I met my Nellie Kane.

She was living in a lonely cabin with a son by another man / Five years she had waited for him, as long as a woman can, long as a woman can.

I don’t know what changed my mind / Until then, I was the ramblin kind / The kind of love I can’t explain / That I have for Nellie Kane.

Well she took me on to work that day, to help her till the land / In the afternoon we planted seeds, in the evening we held hands, in the evening we held hands.

Her blue eyes told me everything a man could want to know / And it was then I realized that I would never go, I would never go.

I don’t know what changed my mind / Until then, I was the ramblin kind / The kind of love I can’t explain / That I have for Nellie Kane.

Now many years have gone by, her son has grown up tall / I became a father to him and she became my all, she became my all…

I love it so.

P.S. This lyric also must have touched Gillian Welch. The name of the woman in her song Caleb Meyer? Nellie Kane.

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