The Common Good
July-August 2002

Death Rattle & Roll

by Beth Newberry | July-August 2002

The Executioner's Last Songs sounds a murderous note against the death penalty

Washington, D.C. activist, punk rocker, and subversive knitter Jenny Toomey croons Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" on The Executioner's Last Songs, a new collection of eerie, gruesome songs from Bloodshot Records. In Toomey's rendition, it's easy to imagine yourself as Miss Otis's forgotten lunch date: Waiting at a table for two, you've already ordered tea, straightened your linen napkin, and read every line of the menu. "Where is she?" you wonder.

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It's as if Toomey has entered the restaurant to tell you the news herself: "Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today, madam/ She's sorry to be delayed." Hers is a prim voice for delivering such chilling news in a tearoom: "Last evening down on lover's lane she strayed/ When she woke up and found that her dream of love was gone/ She ran to the man that had led her astray/And from under her velvet gown/ She drew a gun and shot her lover down." It's a sparse, matter-of-fact revelation of lust, lost honor, fury, murder, and vigilante restitution, delivered in a quiet, deadly voice.

Like "Miss Otis Regrets," the tunes on The Executioner's Last Songs—a benefit album for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project—subtly disturb lunch dates and complacent music listening. They also undermine America's cultural acceptance of capital punishment as a civilized and appropriate form of justice. The 18 "death" songs—written by the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Bill Monroe—are sung by Steve Earle, the Waco Brothers, Rosie Flores, and Neko Case, among others.

It's a perverse way to promote a cause, but it works. "We encourage you to revel in the paradox of banishing barbarism while singing its tune," say its producers. The CD's subtitle: Jon Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts Consign Songs of Murder, Mob Law & Cruel, Cruel Punishment to the Realm of Myth, Memory & History.

DURING AN APRIL interview at a D.C. restaurant, Toomey is earnestly knitting one of her trademark caps as she talks about the project. "Promoting abolition of capital punishment, or any social issue, as an achievable goal is a key to successful organizing," she says. "You have to show the issues are important to the lives [of your audience] and put [the message] in accessible language."

Toomey's long been an activist for anti-death penalty work; her views have been shaped by her Catholic upbringing and the work of several family members. After graduating from Georgetown University, Toomey considered becoming a researcher on death penalty issues for court-appointed lawyers. In her view, most defense lawyers assigned to capital punishment cases lack experience and adequate knowledge about the issues. Toomey's godfather, Lou Natali, directs the Temple University Legal Defense Clinic, which organizes qualified pro-bono representation for Philadelphia citizens who face capital charges. Her father, Daniel Toomey, has represented defendants through the clinic.

Instead, Toomey, now in her early 30s, chose to pursue music. She's released more than 20 albums as a solo artist and with punk bands Tsunami, Liquorice, and Grenadine. She's also a co-creator of Simple Machines Records and is executive director of the Future of Music Coalition (www.futureofmusic.org), a nonprofit think tank that promotes the voice of musicians in legislative and technology issues that impact their art, careers, and quality of life.

A big selling point for lending her musical ability to Last Songs was Toomey's opportunity to work with producer and musician Jon Langford. "Artists are reluctant to put their names [on a project] they don't fully know," she said. "Jon Langford's name goes a long way."

Langford, of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, had performed in 1999 with the Waco Brothers, Steve Earle, and Tony Fitzpatrick—musicians already involved in anti-death penalty activism. The seeds of Last Songs began with that collaboration. Langford also had met Richard Cunningham, an Illinois defense attorney responsible for freeing many of the state's death row inmates. "I began to see the campaign to end capital punishment in the U.S. as a winnable battle, not the fringe issue I assumed it to be," Langford said of the meeting. "I realized I had a stake in this. It's not about guilt or innocence, deterrence, revenge, closure, economics, or even race, though its principal victims are minorities and the poor. It's just plain wrong and it can be stopped.

"I liked the idea of purging ourselves by singing all these death songs against the death penalty," he added, "and I also liked the fact that most of the dark and murderous covers on the CD were the equivalent of hits in their day. The mainstream is a far more timid place now!"

What language does The Executioner's Last Songs speak? The vernacular of murder: lust, betrayal, hate, fury, love, grief, honor, and fear. Responding to criticism that the CD glorifies murder and is excessively gory, Toomey says, "We live a diverse experience on Earth. If you deal with murder without all aspects—including humor and irony—you will only see one aspect of it." If seeing murder as punishment for murder is the one aspect most Americans see, this CD is changing that perspective. Langford wants it to be "one little tool trying to chip through that thin layer of ignorance." No doubt this album of last songs does just that.

Beth Newberry is a writer living in D.C. For more information about the Illinois Death Penalty Project, visit www.illinoismoratorium.org. Proceeds from the CD's sales go to anti-death penalty efforts.

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