As strong as the temptation is these days — just ask John Mellencamp — Jon Langford wouldn’t be caught dead writing an anti-war song, much less singing one. Yes, he was fiercely opposed to the United States’ invasion of Iraq and hates its military mindset. Yes, he mourns the climate in which freedom of speech is trumpeted as a precious right but people who speak out “are meant to keep their mouth shut.” And yes, witness one of the most cutting songs by his Waco Brothers, the altest of alt-country bands, he disdains George Bush: “To the manor born/A silver spoon in your nose/Trade up and trade faith/Like a new set of clothes.”
But Langford would sooner play badminton with Dubya (or his pal Tony Blair, whom he has called “a pious version of Bill Clinton”) than resort to the platitudes that infect songs such as Mellencamp’s recent composition “To Washington”. Sings the former Cougar: “What is the thought process/To take a human’s life/What would be the reason/To think that this is right.” Says the once and future Mekon and Pine Valley Cosmonaut and Waco sibling, aside from “Piss off”: “Sloganeering is implicitly reactionary.”
Being a sensitive artiste, too, Langford questions the thought process that leads to the wrongful taking of human lives. But though Chicago’s leading Welsh transplant has been known to take wicked aim at his enemies from the stage with his boozy off-color remarks, he prefers an oblique path to bringing people around to his way of thinking.
“We use death against death,” Langford says in describing the approach he and his valued colleagues have taken on the Pine Valley Cosmonauts’ collaborative series The Executioner’s Last Songs, which blasts off against capital punishment not by decrying its inhumanity and inequities, but by sandbagging it with dark humor and darker contradictions.
The CDs — Volume 1 came out last year, its two-volume sequel on June 17 — feature the Cosmonauts backing a veritable constellation of singers from the roots sphere and beyond on a varied assortment of tunes about mangy killers and killings and their just and unjust rewards. Released by Chicago’s Bloodshot label, the albums were conceived before Illinois Gov. George Ryan made headlines by granting blanket commutations to condemned prisoners but after he suspended the state’s use of the death penalty, in the wake of DNA tests that led to the exoneration and release of more than a dozen death row dwellers. Proceeds from the recordings go to the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
You might not immediately think of Roger Miller’s “Dang Me”, covered on Volume 3 by Rhett Miller, as a “last song,” but in this context, the very thought of someone taking a rope and hanging you “from the highest tree” takes on heightened meaning. The quiet-to-raging irony of the songs, which on the new release include separate covers of the Tom Jones hit “Green Green Grass of Home” (one by Dave Alvin, one by Kelly Hogan), as well as edgy originals from Mark Eitzel (God’s Eternal Love”) and Pat Brennan (“Death Where Is Thy Sting”), save The Executioner’s Last Songs from the dour earnestness of big-label social statements such as Dead Man Walking.
Langford interprets another Tom Jones chartbuster, “Delilah”, about a man who stabs the woman he claims is his lover for fooling around with someone else. “It’s the Welsh national anthem,” he said, only half-kidding. “To sing it in South Wales is very patriotic. But anything to do with Tom Jones is cool.”
The hope behind The Executioner’s Last Songs is that listeners — primed by the albums’ stated intention (on its cover) to “consign songs of murder, mob-law & cruel, cruel punishment to the realm of myth, memory & history!!” — will become sufficiently caught up in the essential absurdity of violence, any violence, to look at it in a new light. In leaving people not knowing whether to laugh or grimace, Langford has them right where he wants them: ripe for rethinking and possibly revising their assumptions about the death penalty — or not.
When the songs were performed recently at a benefit concert at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, audience members from both the ideological left and right reportedly complained about the number of tunes in which women got the worst of it, wondering whether The Executioner’s Last Songs was for or against the death penalty.
“I picked up a stick off the ground and knocked that fair girl down/She never spoke another word, I only beat her more,” sings the Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks on the old country classic “Knoxville Girl”, one of the tunes from Vol. 1 that has had people writing and calling Bloodshot in protest. “Some of them insisted that we put out a collection to raise money for victims’ families,” said label partner Rob Miller.
A board member of the Old Town was said to be irate over the storied institution hosting the benefit at all. “It’s nice, amazing actually, to be getting across to someone other than the people who already agree with me,” says Langford, whose efforts have so far raised around $40,000 for anti-death penalty forces, according to Miller.
Langford never intended the project to be so expansive, but once the first volume was out, more artists asked to participate on a sequel than could be accommodated on a single disc. The lineup includes Chicago stalwarts such as pedal steel ace Jon Rauhouse, singer-songwriter Chris Mills, soul great Otis Clay and ethereal singer Diane Izzo (who covers Billie Holiday’s haunting lynching song, “Strange Fruit”). Its celebrated out-of-towners include Alejandro Escovedo, Gurf Morlix and veteran British rocker Kevin Coyne. Then there are Sally Timms, Tom Greenhalgh, Rico Bell and Lu Edmonds of the Mekons. Some of the contributors went into the studio the morning after a Chicago gig, while others flew in specifically to make their contribution.
Since his days banging out lefty agit-popaganda with the Mekons, who coalesced on the campus of Leeds University in England during the punkified 1970s — a bunch of working-class art students not knowing they were about to make a different kind of art — Langford has supported any number of causes. His various bands have participated in benefits for the homeless, miners, AIDS charities and pro-choice organizations. They have railed against racists and fascists and capitalism and the oppressive religious right, all of which play recurring roles in his songs. But he says he doesn’t consider himself a political artist, and strongly resists the impulse to be one.
“Most of the time, when songs are designed to effect change, they occur in a vacuum,” he says. “Nothing happens. They can be really embarrassing, like with a lot of punk music. I could never get into that whole ‘smash the system’ business. How can you smash it when you’re a part of it?”