Top 10 Songs about Crime and Justice

I’ve been mulling this over a while. I teach a lot of criminal law classes and the odd criminal justice course and while there are a ton of movie and TV show clips to use in classes as examples I’ve not yet been able to use music in a course — though I’m noodling the idea constantly. Anyway — I am not talking drug songs so no Cocaine or rap records about cheeba, ganja, et al. I’m talking prison, cops, murder, etc. Here’s my top 10 (in no particular order) feel free to contribute:

1. Thin Lizzy — Jailbreak

2. Johnny Cash — Folsom Prison Blues

3. Junior Brown — Highway Patrol

4. Johnny Cash — Cocaine Blues

5. Marty Robbins — They’re Hangin’ Me Tonight (no video of Marty singing, but this is a recording of him put to pics):

6. Bruce Springsteen — Nebraska — I don’t how he captured a serial killer in song, but he nailed it.

7. Bruce Springsteen — Highway Patrolman (Springsteen’s Nebraska album is really dark)

8. Robert Johnson — 32-20 Blues

9. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds — The Mercy Seat

10. U2 — Exit — Live in Denver from Rattle and Hum the film

I purposely left out Jailhouse Rock and I Fought the Law and about a million Johnny Cash and cowboy songs, I Shot the Sheriff.


71 comments to Top 10 Songs about Crime and Justice

  • How about this one?
    “I’m makin’ money and I’m havin’ fun with my
    Radar Gun, Radar Gun
    With my brand new Radar Gun”

  • Shaft!

    Who’s the black private dick
    That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
    You’re damn right

    Who is the man
    That would risk his neck for his brother man?
    Can ya dig it?

    Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
    When there’s danger all about
    Right on

    You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother–
    (Shut your mouth)
    But I’m talkin’ about Shaft
    (Then we can dig it)

    He’s a complicated man
    But no one understands him but his woman
    (John Shaft)


    What, like you knew I wouldn’t be bringing my boys into the mix.

    Oh, Nebraska the only great bleak Springsteen.

  • Floyd

    Ah Shaft… that is a great one.

  • Floyd

    Radar gun… good one.

  • ahem!

    the night the lights went out in georgia.

  • JohnFN

    Shotgun Blues by Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

    One of These Days (not sure if he did the original) by Joe Bonamassa

  • Charles

    “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” by Warren Zevon and Bruce Springsteen. Either the studio recording on “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School” or the live version on “Stand in the Fire.” The film noir touch of your finding the story is narrated by a dead or dying man is chilling, as is the Edipal betrayal at the end. Heard Zevon sing this at the Fox in Denver in August 2000. How I miss him.

  • Charles

    “Sing Me Back Home” by Mary Robbins. Also “Life in Prison.” The Byrds did great recordings of both. I know, only one Marty. You could have filled the whole list with Marty Robbins.

  • Charles

    Good lord, sorry, I meant Merle Haggard. Had “They’re hanging me tonight” on my mind.

  • Fritz

    Long Black Veil — Chieftans w Mick Jagger

    Gallows Pole — Plant and Page

    I Fought The Law

    Somewhere They Can’t Find Me — Simon and Garfunkel

  • Excellent call with Zevon, Charles. Thanks as well for getting my head in noir mode, ’cause there’s few finer than Mr. Stanard Ridgway in that department, including this one that even fits the category:

  • Kath

    Don’t know some of these oldies and you said no gangsta rap?? Okay, leaves me out.

    Although, unfortunately, that damn I Fought the Law & the Law Won is now running around in my head.

  • Mama Tried — Merle Haggard. This one fits the category, but you have to wait until the chorus to really know where it’s going — and then it hits you like a ton of bricks:

  • Thought of another great Haggard tune. As a guy who actually did prison time, I guess he pulls these off well.
    Lonesome Fugitive:
    “I’d like to settle down, but they won’t let me. A fugitive must be a rolling stone.”

  • Rufus

    Speaking of Zevon and serial killers, how about “Excitable Boy?” “After ten long years they let him out of the home/(Excitable boy, they all said)/So he dug up her grave and made a bridge from the bones/(Excitable boy, they all said)”

    There’s also Zevon’s “Send Lawyers, Guns and Money.” “I went home with a waitress/The way I always do/How was I to know/She was with the rebels too”

    I mentioned it here a few weeks ago, but “My Last Meal” really is a great, blues song. It’s about a death row inmate choosing his last meal.

    I’m sure I’ll post ten more comments to this post…

  • Rufus

    Oh, the Soggy Bottom Boys’ version of “In the jailhouse now” from “Oh Brother, Where Art Though” is fantastic! And Tim Blake Nelson does his own vocals, unlike the talent-challenged Clooney.

  • Rufus

    Is Seeger’s “Betty Lou” about a girl getting out of prison, or was she simply grounded? Anyway, great tune.

  • Rufus

    I don’t believe it’s been mentioned, but “Midnight Special” is truly a classic prison song. I think it’s almost mandatory that it be on any top ten list of prison songs.

    I know Floyd already nailed “Cocaine Blues,” but that’s another one that I think is beyond debate. It simply has to be in the top ten.

  • Rufus

    Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry” is a great police related song too.

    A rent party gets busted up by the cops. Great, great tune.

  • Rufus

    Oh Man, “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine” is a true classic!
    I don’t know for sure, but I always assumed “Jailhouse Rock” was a stepchild of this song. Great song!

  • Rufus

    Oh, and Outlaw13 nailed it with “Shaft.” Any top 10 song list about any genre or theme should automatically have Haye’s “Shaft” on the list. Top 10 Baroque Symphonies? #8: “Theme from Shaft.” Top 10 Be-Bop Tunes? #6: “Theme from Shaft.”

  • Rufus

    As far as TV theme’s go, the “Theme from Baretta” is the “Shaft” of network television. Sammy Davis, Jr. “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time…And keep your e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ye, on the sparrow!”

  • I love the inclusion of Mercy Seat. Good to see that appreciatiion for Nick Cave has made its way even to Threedonia.
    The whole Album of Murder Ballads is fraught with choice examples I would say.
    If you’re looking for something a little newer as well, The Decemberists have a great tune (pretty good live recording here:

    Does Steve Miller Band’s “Take the Money and Run” not count?

    Of course, you’ve got all the good ole Irish tunes Like the Black Velvet Band where a young chap gets bamboozled into a crime by pretty lady only to end up transported to Tasmania. Old school Dubliners here:

    Or even better, updated by the Dropkick Murphy’s:

    Could go on, but thats my two cents for now.

  • Floyd

    JM… I don’t know what happened. Must be the links in the comment or something. You’re the first non-robo commenter to get moderated. You were the dolphin in out tuna net. So sorry. :-)

  • Floyd

    Dropkick Murphy’s State of Massachusetts is a good one too…

  • Floyd

    Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix…

  • Always thought of myself as a bit of a dolphin…

  • JohnFN

    I thought the line in “Lawyer’s, Guns and Money” was “she’s with the RUSSIANS, too.” But maybe that’s just me. Zevon learned a great lesson from that song: “Never go on vacation.”

  • Rufus


    Not sure. I thought it was Rebels. The Russians weren’t kidnapping anyone in the 80’s, were they? Doesn’t some other lyric in the song intimate that he’s in Central or South America?

    Where’s Eric P.?!

  • Rufus

    Dolphin in our tuna net?! I love the taste of dolphin; a nice DLT, dolphin, lettuce and tomota sandwich… I thought we were specifically trolling for dolphin!

  • Rufus

    John Milton,

    That Decemberists song rocks, it’s been on my list of songs to purchase from iTunes for awhile. I hate you for being more clever than me and recognizing its mandatory inclusion for this list.

    So, just so we’re clear on the Rufus hatred; I hate Floyd today for coming up with a post idea that’s broken all site records for comments. I hate John Milton today for citing the Decemberists on my own blog. Who’s got next?

  • Late to the party (new job’s got me relatively internet-less these days), but not sure about the Zevon/Central America/Russian thing. I do know Tom Petty’s “Rebels” is severely underrated.

  • Rufus

    Since E.P. let us down I resorted to Google. It is “Russians,” so JohnFN wins the day. However it occurs in Havana, so that’s probably where I got the idea it was a Central America theme. So I guess he’s mixed up with Russians in Cuba.

    Hard to believe Warren Zevon is dead. He always seemed young.

  • Travis Stark

    Johnny Cash, great pick for #2. This is an awesome top ten list. You should post this on my buddy’s site

  • […] Songs celebrating the exploits (no pun intended) of those on the wrong side of the law have a long history. […]

  • Anonymous

    i think he is looking for songs that tie into criminological theories and not just songs that talk about crime. There seems to be a big difference from my findings. A lot of songs can mention this crime or shooting this victim, but the theory as to why it happens is not always apparent in lyrics. One such song is by Johnny Paycheck called “I’m the only hell my momma ever raised.” two theories I found in that is the conflict-pathway theory and possibly social learning theory.

  • I’m surprised that no one has thought about Hurricane, by Bob Dylan.

  • And penuchi gets the award for reaching the furthest back in time (2 years) to make a relivant comment on a thread. Well done Sir! I for one salute you.

    • Rufus

      Outlaw13, do you still have Penuchi’s e-mail? We’re going to have to get that trophy back, ’cause Katie just shattered his record by 3 years!

  • Ramesh

    Don’t forget “Don’t Take Me Alive” (Steely Dan), “Hey Joe,” (Jimi Hendrix), “Down by the River”, (Neil Young) …so many others!!

    And Floyd, if you still read this..I am a criminal justice teacher too! I came across your site looking for more songs- I am going to have the kids (high school) look up my list (it’s OLD for them) and have them list what criminal charges would be appropriate in each song, or what aspect of CJ we’ve studied is in them. (Neil Young’s song would be a murder confession, etc), and then add one song of their own to the list.

    Hey you have to get creative!

  • […] a few ideas, you could consider threedonia’s top ten list of songs about crime, where they place Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’ at […]

  • […] Elizabeth Taylor is #1. Threedonia is #4 and “songs about crime” is # 5 which refers to this post from over 2 years ago. Salma Hayek has been banished from the top 5 and so has “boobs” though I assume […]

  • Meri

    Almost Cut My Hair – Crosby, Stills, and Nash
    When David Crosby was in prison – he started a prison band – and found out that the warden HATED this song. So they played EXTRA long versions of it. ;0)

  • […] searches for going on 3 years now is “Songs about crime”. In addition this page — Top 10 Songs About Crime and Justice from 11/11/2008 has been in our top 5 pages visited every day f… Who knew? There is some great stuff there though I left out some of the cliched songs… A […]

  • Anonymous

    Watching the Detectives – Elvis Costello
    Brick – The Outcry

  • ummmm what about breaking the law Judas priest

  • Magnus Caseus Formatis

    “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” the old Simon & Garfunkel tune.

  • Izzy For Hire

    What about Johnny 99? I see you brought some good choices from Nebraska one of my most favorite of the Boss’s albums. I thought for sure that Johnny was gonna be on here either the Boss’s version or Johnny Cash’s version.


    You are missing some of the best ‘wiseguy’ songs of all-time. Including Louis Armstrong’s “Mack The Knife”, and Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden” that was named as the wiseguy tune of the current times although she wanted it named for marines. It was finally named by a made man as the tune for ‘the family’ in the states, and so many more it’s sad they havenot been included, but I’m glad you included 2 of Johnny Cash’s that definately belong here. But also are missing as you state this is about crime and justice, what about Hey Joe (Jimi Hendix version), Take the Money and Run (Steve Miller Band), and Band On The Run (Paul McCartney & Wings) ?!! And the ones I listed do not even include the tunes that movies have ruined by being involved in the movie, for example: Layla (Derek and the Dominos in the movie Goodfellas), and in Resevoir Dogs- “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. These are great songs now forever embedded into our memories in a horrific way.


    Let me add to that, “There’s a RIot Goin’ On” – The Blues Brothers. The Grateful Dead- ‘Friend of the Devil’, and ‘Jack Straw’.

    ‘I Fought The Law’- by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets and became popularized by a cover by the Bobby Fuller Four

    ‘Chain Gang’- Sam Cooke
    and one of my personal favorites- Mason Prophet- “Two Hangmen”

  • 4+ years after it was initially posted, this one is giving the “Best Fighter of WWII” thread a run for its money.


    Yes Outlaw13, But without in the top ten of all-time including:
    Mason Prophet – ‘Two Hangmen’
    Bobby Fuller Four- ‘I Fought The Law’
    Sam Cooke- ‘Chain Gang’
    Hendrix- ‘Hey Joe’
    Steve Miller Band- ‘Take the Money and Run’
    Paul McCartney and Wings – ‘Band on the Run’

    This is not a top ten list of ‘Crime and Punishment’ without at least Mason Prophet’s- Two Hangmen, and Bobby Fuller Four doing- ‘I Fought the Law’, this list is not worthwhile. Those 2 songs, and the 6 tunes I listed all truly belong here in the top 10 of all-time.


    I would tkae the 6 I listed, and add the 2 from Johnny Cash, and that leaves only 2 tracks left from all-time to pick from…… what would you chose then?

  • Texacalirose

    Tom Dooley … gun control would not have saved her.

  • Katie

    Wow. What I can’t believe is how white-washed all of these songs are. Let’s look at some stats at who is actually in prison right now… since you teach criminal law classes, I”m pretty disappointed in this listing. Prison is a racist industrial complex. Look at how many minorities, especially black men, are in prison. You want a good song about criminal justice? How about Shadow Business by Jedi Mind Tricks. There’s a good one. Or The State vs. Kirk Jones by Rah Digga/Canibus/Redman. Or Common’s “Testify.”

    • Good Katie. Now try making suggestions without being a tool. It’s called civility and we mostly practice it around here — even with proponents of a radical criminological outlook. :-)

    • Shame on me for forgetting a few of the godfathers, Katie, but to mention all you do without noting PE’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” Ice T’s “The Tower,” or even 2Pac’s “16 On Death Row” or Nas’ “One Love” from the mid-school? Come on, now, playah. Hist’ry shouldn’t be a mys’t’ry.

    • and the majority of people in prison are… wait for it… poor. So take your racial baiting elsewhere… if you want to talk poverty then maybe you’ll get somewhere. My answer to your supposed issue though is to not let Black rapists go, but to put more White racists in prison — if numbers are so important to you.

    • Texacalirose

      Our second black president should close the racist prisons. Or just promise his racist acolyte LIV’s that he’ll close them because, you know, Gitmo.

  • chastityvonfae

    old red – Blake Shelton
    Papa loved Mama – Garth Brooks

  • chastityvonfae

    Skid Row – 18 and life

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