Bank Robbin' Music
Anyone want to go rob a bank?
A couple of years ago this question might not have gotten so many takers. But a lot changes in a couple of years. In the public mind, banks have gone from places where you merely keep your money to places that... well, steal your money. And your house. And--either directly or indirectly--your job. And after all of this, after running the economy into the ground, they're rewarded with billions of tax-payer dollars to fund their own executives' bonus pay.
So, I ask again: anyone want to go rob a bank?
When Woody Guthrie wrote "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" in the late 1930s, there were no doubt plenty of folks who wished they could have done what Pretty Boy had. The joblessness and mass evictions ushered in by the Great Depression were accompanied by an uptick in outlaw gangs barnstorming the country, knocking over banks as they went. And though the presses did their best to villify him, Guthrie's perception of Floyd was that of a folk hero, someone who stuck it to the fat-cats and righted more than a few wrongs along the way.
Guthrie had written several songs about these gangs, but none seemed to be as brazen as his tribute to Floyd. In Woody Guthrie: A Life, biographer Joe Klein dove deep into the folkie's motivations:
"It was a song that was calculated to outrage 'proper' people and to entertain the Okies in the migrant camps... [I]f the police considered Pretty Boy a criminal, he was a hero to the poor farmers who gave him shelter and, in return for their hospitality, often found that their mortgage had been paid off or a thousand-dollar bill left at the dinner table... And if the point still wasn't quite clear, Woody hammered it home with two beautifully simple last verses:
Now as through this world I ramble
I've seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.
But as through this life you travel
And as through this world you roam
You will never see an outlaw
Drive a family from its home."
It was one of the first "outlaw anthems," in the truest sense of the word. "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" tapped into a simple story as old as Robin Hood: the rich are corrupt, greedy, and have only gotten to where they are by stepping on the necks of the poor. They deserve to be robbed, their wealth given back to the people it was stolen from in the first place.
The story of Guthrie's noble outlaw told runs deep through every form of popular music. Johnny Cash dared to humanize prisoners in songs like "Folsom Prison Blues," and played several legendary shows for inmates all over the country. Elvis Presley even made the outlaw lifestyle seem fun in "Jailhouse Rock."
When Punk broke out in the late '70s, The Clash consciously re-ignited this tradition with their cover of the Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought the Law." Joe Strummer--himself such a massive Guthrie fan that he had spent his art school days calling himself "Woody"--was fascinated with stories of outlaw justice. Several of his lyrics updated the bank robbin' song for Thatcher's Britain, most notably in the aptly-titled dub-step "Bankrobber":
"Daddy was a bankrobber
But he never hurt nobody
He just loved to live that way
And he loved to steal your money
Some is rich, some is poor
That's the way the world is
But I don't believe in lying back
Sayin' how bad your luck is"
Like Guthrie, Strummer didn't give much credence to the idea of branding someone a criminal in a system that's based on robbing the poor to give to the rich:
"The old man spoke up in a bar
Said I never been in prison
A lifetime serving one machine
Is ten times worse than prison."
This kind of tradition (and yes, it is a tradition) can be found yet again in today's foremost rebel music: Hip-Hop. Politicians have long harped on the genre's "penchant for violence." If any of them bothered to scratch the surface, though, they might find there's a reason for the frequent desire to stick it to the man.
Hip-Hop rose to prominence when America was coming under the grip of Reagan-style conservatism, when social services were slashed and taxes on the rich drastically lowered, Hip-Hop has long channeled the outlaw image. It isn't surprising that the same figures behind the madness would berate the folks demanding to "get their shit back."
The release of the Hughes Brothers' 1995 classic Dead Presidents--climaxing with the main characters robbing an armored car--brought the bank robber story to the forefront of Hip-Hop. The movie was set in the early '70s, and though its soundtrack exclusively contained Soul and R&B, samples of it would show up in albums by Jay-Z and NaS. Dead Prez, who helped bring a new revolutionary outlook to Rap in the late '90s, are reported to have taken their very name from the film.
There's a reason for the long history of bank robbin' music. The stories in these songs are about a lot more than just a handful of outcasts getting away with the loot. At their core, they're about all of us, and our ability to take back what's rightfully ours. If this same theme pops up time again in our music, it's only because we still live in a world of haves and have-nots. But then, that's become a lot more apparent in recent months.
So, who wants to go get their shit back?
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts and SleptOn.com, and a frequent contributor to ZNet and Socialist Worker.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.