With Musical Yearbook in the rear view mirror, Brock Alter, Zach Ryan, and Phil Lang embark on a new musical podcast journey. Over the course of the next month, the guys will focus an entire podcast on one single song and dissect it in every possible way. This week we hear three very, very different reactions to one hell 0f a blues number, courtesy of The Stone Foxes. “Mr. Hangman” is a fan-maker to be sure. The guitars, vocals, and tremelo harmonica singe. Make sure to check the band out at Outside Lands this weekend (they play on Saturday), or if you’re lucky you can see them open for the one and only Warren Haynes at The Independent. Damn, that’s a kick-ass weekend for an up-and-coming band!
“We are More Than Lovesick Puppies”
By Brock Alter
Most songs are about something, right? Could a song be about nothing, and isn’t that something?
I think too many songs are about love. Do you want me? Don’t you want me? Why don’t you want me? What can I do to make you want me? What did I do to make you stop wanting me? I want you. I think I want you. I don’t want you. Etc. I can’t say a love song has never touched me but for fuck’s sake if an alien turned on the radio it might think that most people are lovesick puppies for brains who spend 95% of their day pining.
“Mr. Hangman” is about something. It bothers to give a damn about something important, or at least I think it is anyway, and it’s absolutely refreshing for that.
Let’s get the badassery out of the way. The song could rip the roof off a barn (if you could move enough to turn all the speakers towards the roof of said barn). If the song were composed differently and if the Stone Foxes didn’t have it in them, we might not be talking about it but it is this way and they do and I like it. So we thrash, but that’s not why I keep coming back.
Some of us at BAMM followed the stone foxes around for a week for this documentary we were making so we were doing a lot of prep work. At one point we said, “what’s going on here? What are they talking about? Why are they singing these things?” We meant in a general sense, like we would ask any artist we were documenting this. “Why do you do this and not this?” Anyway with the ears tuned in it sorta shone through to me that Hangman was a song about the death penalty, and about Shannon (the singer/drummer/harmonica player’s) ethical objection to it. A couple lines really telegraphed it for me the first one of course
“Hey there mr. hangman cut these ropes a swinging”
It’s hard to hear from there, so I’ll read them for you:
The hangman says he’s seen my sign,
He says that it’s past my time,
The punishment don’t fit no crime,
Mr. Hangman aren’t you over the line?
“The punishment don’t fit no crime” hits me in the brain gut like a bonesaw macgraw. It makes sense to me. How is it that the civilized answer to an uncivilized crime is an uncivilized crime? “You know I love you but you aint worth the trouble” The strait from the song version is the girl leaving while her man has the noose on. But the metaphor took me longer to figure out. It’s buried behind the layers of “this is a song about the death penalty” “execution is uncivilized” and finally this line lands on “you say you value humanity, but you also take the perspective that some humans aren’t worth the trouble.” Peace, cya later, sayonara sucka.
Shannon and I talked about it on the road. It came up in one of the interviews and validated my suspicion about the song. He told me about reconciliation programs where victims and offenders work together to repair the crime committed. I prefer this, and find it much more humane and cathartic, than scare tactics and strong armed punishers acting as keepers of the peace.
The song doesn’t really from what I can tell get specifically into the writer’s alternative solutions for justice which has me thinking about the subjective poetic approach to addressing an issue versus the objective saying exactly what you are addressing.
I’m going to use “The Times they are a changing” and I may be wrong or off base but I’m imagining giving the lyrics sheet to a 5th grader and saying, “What exactly does Mr. Dylan have a problem with here? What does he want to happen? What’s changing?” and they might respond, “Waters are growing, Congress men are standing in the hall, and mothers and fathers acting like assholes as usual.”
The song is of a time. Their time, which now can only be viewed in retrospect unless you were there which I was not and neither was this 5th grader. I can only guess that the rising waters were referring to either melting icecaps and global warming, or possibly the drowning nature of norms enforced by the status quo. Without detail it’s really hard to tell. What do you think of when you hear that line? It doesn’t matter, but it does! I want an “anthem” to at least know if it’s addressing social abstractions or promoting a direct action.
I’m in way over my head on this one. I can’t fully dive into the history of protest and whether poetry changes more hearts than minds and I’m not sure at this point if this essay uses more subjective or objective point of view and reasoning to provide a clear or convincing description about the power of this song and the importance of its message. And I don’t think or know if many people hear Mr. Hangman and begin questioning their stance on the death penalty, repentance, or redemption but its all in there.
I’m looking for a song that says, “I find your stance on abortion to be overreaching when you demand laws which outlaw my ability to choose how I handle my pregnancy.” “Your proposed constitutional amendment against my same sex marriage is in itself unconstitutional and is in fact another overreaching action promoted by you and your religion.” Or “I found on the Internet that worldwide we use over a million plastic bags per minute, they waste oil, create pollution, kill sea life, please don’t ever use a plastic bag ever again. Let’s make a law about it!”
Is it too direct to be direct?
I’m curious about the subjective vs. objective approach of addressing an issue other than love in a song. How much does poetic license make the point more confused or clear?
In “Mr. Hangman” I believe that the lyrics that assume the subjective more emotional point of view work to reinforce the meaning behind the song, which is that it is a rallying cry for pacifism.
Here’s Shannon’s email when I asked him about the song:
Hey Brock! Heard you guys used psycho for the last podcast, it’s a great podcast, really cool stuff, good essays! Yah, use Hangman. It’s an anti death penalty story, a guy on the gallows gets deserted by his girl, and it’s not enough to leave him in jail, the hangman is interested more in extermination than redemption.
Our legal system doesn’t exactly poor money into restorative justice. So there, that’s it buddy. Thanks for all the continued support, you guys are awesome, can’t wait to see the documentary! Hope you are doing well and we will see you soon! Also, you owe us a Psycho video, all you guys should do some! I meant our legal system doesn’t POUR money into restorative justice. We say we are better than the criminals and that we are civilized, woops!
Cut Me Down
By Zachary Ryan
I have to admit; I knew the real meaning behind “Mr. Hangman” long before I ever even sat down to really listen to the song. I had been told, very directly, by Shannon Koehler, who wrote and sings the lyrics to the song, that it was written about the death penalty.
It’s funny, because upon first meeting, Koehler doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would write a song about something as serious and controversial as this. In fact, given his natural inclination to tell stories in his music it seemed like the last thing he’d want to do is write about politics. And yet, there it is, the second to last song on his band’s sophomore album, in all it’s gritty, blues rock glory.
Upon first listen, you might not even realize that you’re hearing a protest song, especially when you consider his other musings across the album ‘Passenger Train’ tells the story of a train robber with a heart of gold, ‘Through the Fire’ is about good girl making bad choices, so it’s easy to peg him as another rock and roll raconteur. But the more you listen, the more you start to feel his message.
That’s what’s most striking to me about the song. Koehler doesn’t sing directly about whether or not the death penalty should be enforced. Instead, he writes in a way that if you’re just listening for straight blues rock revelry, you’ll chalk the lyrics up to another story in The Stone Foxes’ stable. But if you’re paying close enough attention, Koehler is beating you over the head with his message, but selling it to you as a story. And that’s what good writes do.
Hell, there’s even a bit of a love story in there. In this, he’s able to ad some humanity to his character’s plight. She tells him, “You know I love you but you ain’t worth the trouble.” How many of us turn this sort of nonchalant eye towards those that have been hung with our tax dollars?
In the bridge, Koehler’s character is pleading with his captor “Cut me down, Mr. Hangman” a moment that is made especially poignant when seeing The Stone Foxes live. Often, he takes his belief directly to the audience, hopping off the stage, standing amongst the crowd and singing quietly until everyone is singing along with him “Cut me down, Mr. Hangman”. A chorus of strangers unified, if only for a moment, on Koehler’s sentiment. Pretty moving stuff.
But I keep coming back to one line in the song. In the chorus he sings “The punishment don’t fit no crime, Mr. Hangman aren’t you over the line?” Thinly veiled, but it still asks an important question; just how much is too much? Is there ever a reason or an excuse for anyone to take someone else’s life? No matter what your politics are, it’s a question that you have to at least ask yourself.
Overall the songs is a powerhouse, it’s the best of both worlds and a truly stand out track on the album. Guitar geeks, and lyrical aficionados like myself can find something to love. When I listen to it, I can’t help but be impressed, not only by the bands blues rock bravado, but in Koehler’s courage to sing about something that is clearly so important to him.
Writer loses Girl to Local Rock Band (again)
By Phil Lang
At one point or another, all poets and novelists must experience an acidic jealousy towards a songwriter. This is how I imagine it playing out:
After numerous, increasingly aggressive pleas, Donald, one of Mr. Writer’s few friends finally pulls W away from his floor level apartment for a drink. As they cross Dolores Park, W fills the space between puffs to talk about a potential breakthrough while researching his WWI historical fiction manuscript. Of course he explains this development— a perfectly good reason for excitement—in that qualifying, pessimistic tone writers seemingly pledge to upon labeling themselves a “writer.”
Donald turns into W mid-stride and slaps him on the back. “It’s a whiskey night, then! A masterpiece has been conceived.”
“I’ll have to rewrite the whole thing. Again.”
Donald has heard this response so many times that he knows not to try to encourage W. They cross Guerrero and make their way to the Make-Out Room—a red-walled bar with silver tinsel hanging from the ceiling like stalactites. A band is getting ready to play.
Donald and W have a quick first drink. Then another. The band has left the stage and the bar is filling up before the set begins. Despite his best efforts, W finds himself trying to explain the complexities of the novel to a woman named Rita. She has tattoos on her chest and short bangs and thick red lipstick.
“But it’s more than just a personal struggle for the protagonist,” W says. “It’s about a collective identity.”
“Of course,” Rita says. She signals to the bartender for another drink. “A personal struggle, but through the perspective of a talking dog in WWI.”
W bites the corner of his mouth. “More or less.”
“I don’t entirely get it, but I like it, I think.”
“The name is Walton,” he says.
The band takes the stage. They fire into a blues number than singes the stalactites. The song grabs everyone by the ass. Rita pulls away, leaving W with his stupid talking dog trope and justification to make the next round a double. He sees Donald making his way to the front of crowd, bouncing to the kick drum.
That’s what’s so powerful about music over words. Emotion does not need description. A guitar can express the intangible—the most important of subtleties—so much more efficiently than a collection of nouns and adjectives. No guidance is required.
I’ve read the lyrics to “Mr. Hangman,” but in terms of my experience of the song, the lyrics are just adjectives and adverbs. The music is the thing. The noun. The harp is the man’s soul on the gallows. The guitar is the swinging rope, and the straight bass and drums all but put the noose around his neck.
I can’t help but hear “Whole Lotta Love,” the Led Zeppelin classic, in this song. The riff is so similar, but for that slight swing to the Zeppelin track. An eighth note of a difference. Maybe that’s the difference between death and sex.