1. Bessie Smith, “Send Me To The ’Lectric Chair”
Murder ballads have a long and hallowed history in music, as do tunes that dwell on various aspects of crime and punishment. But there’s a specific type of song that focuses on a much narrower facet of thug life: the courtroom song. There are many murder ballads or crime-based songs that mention trials in passing (Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” for instance), but courtroom songs dwell exclusively—or at least substantially—on the explicit details of a criminal proceeding, be it real or imaginary, serious or humorous. An early (and eerie) recorded example is Bessie Smith’s 1927 ballad “Send Me To The ’Lectric Chair.” As with many courtroom songs, it addresses a justice of the peace directly: “Judge, you wanna hear my plea before you open up your court,” Smith sings with fatalistic sorrow, “But I don’t want no sympathy, ’cause I done cut my good man’s throat.” As she unspools the tragic story recounting the murder of her cheating lover, she stoically accepts her fate, stating, “I wanna take a journey to the devil down below / I done killed my man, I just wanna reap what I sow / Oh judge, judge, lordy lordy judge, send me to the ’lectric chair.” As a slice of testimony, both musical and lyrical, it’s devastating.
2. Pigmeat Markham, “Here Comes The Judge”
One of the first proto-rap records, Pigmeat Markham’s 1968 single “Here Comes The Judge” is also one of the definitive courtroom songs. Markham bends his gruff, avuncular flow to a rambling story that’s part mock trial, part comedy sketch, and part drunken dance party—and the verdict is pure funk. The single’s flip-side sports a spoken-word skit (recorded on Rowan And Martin’s Laugh-In) titled “The Trial” that drives home Markham’s raw, racy idea of gin-soaked justice.
3. Shorty Long, “Here Comes The Judge”
Although it shares a title with (and was ostensibly inspired by) Markham’s tune of the same name, Shorty Long’s 1968 soul classic “Here Comes The Judge” cuts back on Markham’s wordy delivery. In its place is a driving, call-and-response—make that judge-and-jury—exchange that extols the honorable Judge Shorty. “Order, order, what’s the first case on the docket?” Long intones, answered by a backup singer’s lament that, “I gotta boy here who can’t dance.” Long then delivers his wise and merciful sentence: “Thirty days in boogaloo, 30 days to learn how to shingaling, and 30 more for the Afro-twist.”
4. Clarence Carter, “The Court Room”
On the slinkier, moodier side of the courtroom song is the Southern swagger of Clarence Carter’s “The Court Room.” Already known as an eminent R&B storyteller through his earnest, overwrought ballad “Patches,” Carter uses “The Court Room” to lay out a lurid story about an innocent young parishioner named Ellie May who brings charges against Reverend Joe Henry. The crime? “The Reverend partook of my lovely body.” The case grows more convoluted as character witnesses line up to defend the reverend, including the clearly biased foreman of the jury, an army buddy of Henry’s—resulting in a questionable acquittal that only adds to the song’s unsettling, ambiguous tone.
5. Prince Buster, “Judge Dread”
Ska grandfather Prince Buster sang lots of songs about dancing, social consciousness, and sex (or a combination thereof). But in 1967, he had crime on his mind. Along with the successful single “Al Capone,” he released “Judge Dread,” an iconic early reggae track. Its slow, sinuous skank underpins the tale of three rudeboys who are called before the harsh Judge Hundred-Years, a.k.a. Judge Dread, for multiple counts of robbery, aggravation, and “shooting up black people.” After sentencing them to 400 years (and 500 lashes), he punctuates the song with the cry, “Court adjourned, take them away!” It’s the kind of hard-living rudeboy anthem that would find its apotheosis five years later in the Jimmy Cliff vehicle The Harder They Come.
6. The Specials, “Stupid Marriage”
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Prince Buster proved to be a huge influence on the punk-fueled ska revival Two Tone. Although faster and sharper than their Jamaican predecessors, British Two Tone bands like The Specials covered many of Buster’s songs—although The Specials’ “Stupid Marriage” opts to borrow liberally from “Judge Dread” rather than replicate it. Using the original as a template, The Specials update the testimony as a twisted, sordid account of domestic tension, violence, and a woman who “forgot to take her pill” in order to get pregnant and coerce her lover into marriage. Presiding over the case is Judge Roughneck, who will have none of it; he ends the song with a justified echo of Judge Dread’s “Take them away!”
7. Pluto Shervington, “Your Honour”
Pluto Shervington’s lovers-rock style of reggae took a humorously tragic turn with 1982’s “Your Honour.” Buoyed by a breezy calypso sway, the song is a convoluted courtroom confessional in which Shervington begins pleading his innocence—before completely implicating himself in the crime of cuckoldry. “Your Honour,” he implores, “I was inside the closet, minding I and I own business / Your Honour, it was a complete stranger causing these disturbances / Him claims of me touching him wife / Which is a wicked and awful lie.” Shervington tries to paint himself as the victim of the crime, but he just digs himself in deeper when he asks the judge to call a certain character witness: “Ask the maid downstairs, Agatha / She gonna be glad to testify for me.”
8. N.W.A., “Fuck Tha Police”
Some courtrooms songs paint realistic scenarios. Others—like N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police”—take a far more outrageous tack. “Right about now N.W.A. court is in full effect / Judge Dre presiding in the case of N.W.A. versus the police department,” goes the song’s intro. From there, things get decidedly un-courtly, with Ice Cube kicking off an account of police brutality—and equally brutal gangsta retaliation—that inverts the dominant order (not to mention the order in the court).
9. Common, “Testify”
“She walk into the court, her knees buckle / Saying for a man to survive he needn’t hustle,” Common raps in his 2005 single “Testify.” At first, it seems as if the song’s female character is showing up in court to offer support for her man, who’s being accused of murder and gun possession. As the courtroom drama unfolds, though, it turns out that the truth is exactly the opposite: The “queenpin” has coerced her lover into taking the rap for her crimes. The song’s video adds an edgier resonance to Common’s morally ambiguous fable, with Taraji P. Henson as the devoted wife and Wood Harris—better known as for his role as Avon Barksdale in The Wire—as the wrongfully accused. This makes sense, seeing as how “Testify” could be a deleted scene from The Wire.
10. Plan B, “She Said”
British rapper turned soul singer Ben “Plan B” Drew delivered a solid slab of retro R&B with 2010’s The Defamation Of Strickland Banks. One of the concept album’s most arresting chapters is the song “She Said.” Casting himself as the fictional Strickland Banks, a soul singer accused of murder, Drew draws up a story of betrayal by a psychotic fan—one who seduced him before shedding crocodile tears at his trial: “So now I’m up in the courts, pleading my case from the witness box / Telling the judge and jury the same thing I told to the cops,” he croons. “‘I’m innocent,’ I protested / She just feels rejected / Had her heart broken by someone she’s obsessed with.”
11. Pink Floyd, “The Trial”
Leave it to Pink Floyd to put a simultaneously Kafkaesque and Orwellian twist on the courtroom song. “The Trial,” the climactic track from 1979’s The Wall, is both darkly absurd and deeply chilling; Pink, the album’s tortured protagonist, is hauled before his own subconscious magistrate in the form of The Judge, who finds Pink guilty of “being caught red-handed showing feelings / Showing feelings of an almost human nature.” As the song contracts and swells, The Judge’s verdict is grotesquely handed down: “I have never heard before / Of someone more deserving the full penalty of law / The way you made them suffer / Your exquisite wife and mother / Fills me with the urge to defecate.”
12. 10cc, “Good Morning Judge”
The British pop-rock group 10cc has always had a taste for musical goofiness, and that’s especially evident on the band’s 1977 single “Good Morning Judge.” Instead of wallowing in courtroom gravitas, the arch and cheeky song dabbles in a bouncy, boogie-style beat, detailing the petty yet recidivist crimes of a man who works his way up to car theft, as well as the stints he is to serve in both San Quentin and Alcatraz. The tune’s hapless protagonist isn’t that concerned with the judge’s admittedly anachronistic sentences; in fact, he madly admits to being “So happy, I don’t want to be free.”
13. Leonard Cohen, “A Singer Must Die”
If a courtroom can sometimes feel grim, it feels downright mausoleum-like when Leonard Cohen sets a song in one. “A Singer Must Die,” a track from 1974’s New Skin For The Old Ceremony, has less to do with fictional testimony, evidence, and justice, and more to do with a reaction against those who have judged Cohen. Specifically his music and its seductive powers: “Now the courtroom is quiet / But who will confess? / Is it true you betrayed us? / The answer is yes,” moans Cohen over a deathlike waltz. His offense, punishable by death, is “the lie in his voice.” And “smudging the air with my song.”
14. Johnny Cash, “Cocaine Blues”
From “I Got Stripes” and “The Long Black Veil” to “Starkville City Jail” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash either wrote or helped popularize numerous songs about crime and incarceration. But his best exemplar of the courtroom song is “Cocaine Blues.” An adaption of the folk standard “Little Sadie” (which Cash also reworked for his own “Transfusion Blues”), the ballad is Cash’s hair-raising—yet perversely raucous—paean to opiate abuse, domestic violence, and just basically being a bastard. It all comes back to haunt him, though, when, as Cash sings, “The judge smiled as he picked up his pen / Ninety-nine years in the Folsom Pen.”
15. Patsy Cline, “A Church, A Courtroom, And Then Goodbye”
Before famously singing about falling to pieces and going crazy for loving, country icon Patsy Cline released a debut single in 1955: “A Church, A Courtroom, And Then Goodbye.” The title is a dead giveaway that it’s a courtroom song; it isn’t a typical crime-based one, though. Instead, Cline uses the song to lay the groundwork for the doomed, everyday romance that would become her hallmark. “The first scene was the church, then the alter,” she sings with a sad twang, “Where we claimed each other, with tears of joy we cried.” But rather than taking that matrimonial scenario down some tragic, man-murders-wife (or vice-versa) road, the tune hits a quieter note of drama: “I hate the sight of that courtroom / Where manmade laws push God’s laws aside / Then the clerk wrote our story in the record / A church, a courtroom, and then goodbye.” For an anti-divorce courtroom song, it’s fairly tepid. For a debut single, it has an awful ring of finality to it.