Mojo Nixon, some kind of joker, once recorded a song called Death Row Blues. Not that he knew anything about them.
The rough-cut Louisiana blues artist Robert Pete Williams, who earned himself a life sentence for shooting a man dead in 1956, recorded the songs Farm Blues, Freight Train Blues, Matchbox Blues, Railroad Blues, Tombstone Blues, Vietnam Blues, Prisoner’s Talking Blues and Pardon Denied Again. But he never had death row blues. Williams was pardoned after a pair of ethnomusicologists, who had recorded the melodious inmate, pleaded successfully for his release in 1958. That’s not the only time a prisoner was ever released because of his way with moans and seventh chords.
But who spoke for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley? They were teenagers when they were convicted for the 1993 murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. (Echols alone was sentenced to death.) They spent 18 years in prison, while outside the gates, mounting evidence cast doubt on their conviction. And the three are subjects of a 2012 documentary directed by Amy Berg, West of Memphis, that’s opening in Toronto and Vancouver on Jan. 25.
Those who fought for the trio’s acquittal – they were finally freed in 2011 but still haven’t been exonerated – included musicians such as Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Marilyn Manson, Patti Smith and Natalie Maines, all of whom contributed to an emotional soundtrack to Berg’s film.
This album, however, features “music and songs inspired by the film.” The actual score was written and performed by the soundtrack-specializing duo of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (both of the Australian alt-rock band Grinderman and, in Cave’s case, the Bad Seeds).
Solemn elements of the Cave-Ellis score are heard on the opening track of the album, Damien Echols Death Row Letter Year 9, in which the spoken-word artist and hardcore musician Rollins reads a letter Echols had written to him in 2003.
“I’m getting scared, Henry,” it reads. “I can’t tell anyone else that, because everyone here wants me to be fearless, to have no doubts.”
Pink Floyd’s Mother, a slow, spacey number about emotional retreat and isolation, is rendered poignantly by the Dixie Chicks’ Maines and, on lap steel, Ben Harper. A highlight is Joy by Lucinda Williams, a gritty, jangly blues tune first recorded by the alt-country misery queen in 1998 and re-recorded recently: “You got no right to take my joy; I want it back.”
Shock-rocker Manson offers a rigid, relentless take on You’re So Vain, while actor Johnny Depp, as part of the band credited as Tonto’s Giant Nuts, is nothing special on a rumbling cover of Mumford and Sons’ Little Lion Man.
Vedder, a staunch backer of the West Memphis 3, contributes a ukelele love song originally written for Echols and his wife, who met and married while Echols sat on death row.
Poet-punkstress Smith closes with a scratchy and haunting live version of Wing: “I couldn’t go nowhere, no future at all, yet I was free.” Freedom isn’t necessarily just another word for nothing left to lose. Sometimes being free, if only in the mind, is all there is.
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