5 Songs Based on Tragic True-Life Stories

It’s not just with true-crime podcasts that we’re fascinated by lurid or tragic stories culled from real life. It’s probably related to the idea some psychologists subscribe to that we understand our own lives through narrative. Of course, most stories that generate enough heat for headlines involve unexpected goings-on such as an undeserved death. It’s the kind of story that gives many of these tragic songs their heft—the allure of a great injustice.

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1. “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan (1975)

In the context of this song, the tragedy is less the triple murder at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey; it’s the inherent racism that sent a promising middleweight boxer, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and his friend John Artis to jail for a crime they didn’t commit. They were convicted on shaky evidence, eyewitness descriptions that didn’t match, and the word of two men robbing a nearby warehouse who stopped into the bar, and, upon seeing the scene, robbed the deceased, and the register, before running into the police on their way out the door. Twice!

Carter wrote an autobiography in prison that inspired Dylan to write “Hurricane.” Its release sparked a second trial in 1976, where it was revealed cops made an incriminating deal with the aforementioned crooks. Carter still lost. He was finally exonerated when Judge H. Lee Sarokin granted a writ of habeaus corpus in 1985, in a case New Jersey prosecutors took all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court let Carter’s release stand without comment. Artis had been paroled five years earlier.

2. “Casey Jones” by Grateful Dead (1970)

Casey Jones was a well-regarded engineer who went down with the train rather than save his own skin. In a 1900 accident, Jones stayed aboard his runaway train after his fireman jumped, applying the handbrake to slow the train’s speed from 75 to 40 mph as it plowed through a stalled caboose and derailed. Jones was thrown and crushed beneath the cab. His quick action is credited for preventing greater damage and loss of life.

Oddly, the story was kept alive by an engine cleaner and attendant (called a “wiper”) named Wallace Saunders. He idolized Jones and wrote a ballad about him to the tune of a popular song at the time, “Jimmie Jones.” Saunders whistled his tribute at work and it passed along the rails by word of mouth until a pair of vaudeville performers appropriated it. They published it in 1909, and from there other variations proliferated like a game of telephone, all fudging details.

According to Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, the lines, Driving that train, high on cocaine / Casey Jones, you better watch your speed just came to him. When he discovered the passage in his notes, he decided it might be the germ of a good song. (He tried to find a way to replace the “cocaine” reference, obviously to no avail.)

3. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 (1983)

It’s hard not to connect “Bloody Sunday,” also called the Bogside Massacre, of 1972 to a shooting in America similarly surrounding a peaceful protest: the Kent State Massacre from two years earlier. By comparison, though, the Ohio shooting was far less deadly, with only four dying and nine wounded. The protest in the Bogside region of Derry, North Ireland, claimed 14 lives with 12 others injured, most shot while fleeing British soldiers as they ran down demonstrators with their vehicles.

[RELATED: The Grammar School Origins of U2]

The initial tribunal whitewashed the incident and absolved the government of blame, claiming they were fired upon first. In 2010, a second investigation shredded the first as bogus, confirming the protesters were in actuality unarmed.

Interestingly, John Lennon wrote a song of the same name as the ’83 U2 classic at the time the massacre happened. In fact, Bono has confessed that subconsciously the opening line, “I can’t believe the news today,” was modeled after the famous Beatles song “A Day in the Life,” which opens, I read the news today, oh boy.

4. “I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats (1979)

Long before he helmed 1985’s Live Aid, Bob Geldof penned The Boomtown Rats’ biggest hit, about a shooting spree at a school in San Diego, California. On January 29, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer killed two adults and injured a policeman and eight children. When asked why she did it, she explained that she didn’t like Mondays, and “this livens up the day.” Geldof would later admit he regretted the song because it made Spencer famous.

Spencer lived in poverty and slept on the same mattress as her divorced, alcoholic father in a living room furnished with little more than empty liquor bottles. She was later found to have had a temporal lobe injury she blamed on a fall from a bicycle. She’d shot out the windows of the school with a BB gun the summer before, and by December her probation officer suggested she be hospitalized for depression. Her father refused. For Christmas he bought her a rifle.

5. “Suffer Little Children” by The Smiths (1984)

The Moors Murders, as they became known, occurred in Manchester, England, between 1963 and 1965. The events upset a teenage Morrissey at the time. Later he read a sensationalized account of the murders, Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and its Detection. He used it as fodder for the first song he and guitarist Johnny Marr wrote together as The Smiths. They played it at their first show at the Ritz Manchester in 1982, and never again played it live.

The murderers were Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, the latter of whom was a Nazi enthusiast who intended to plot the perfect crime. He spoke frequently of Compulsion, the 1956 Meyer Levin novel based on the true-life Leopold and Loeb trial, where two college kids planned to kidnap and kill a 14-year old, expecting to get off because of their age. (Spoiler: They didn’t.) Brady and Hindley eventually confessed to killing five children between the ages of 10 and 17, burying them in nearby moors. Only four bodies were found.

Photo by Clare Muller/Redferns

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