I Hung My Head – 3 Versions

“Early one morning
With time to kill
I borrowed Jebb’s rifle
And sat on a hill
I saw a lone rider
Crossing the plain
I drew a bead on him
To practice my aim”

The magnificent and multi-talented Jim of Music Enthusiast (if you don’t read it, you’re missing out) has kindly permitted me to half-inch his One Song / Three Versions format for a mo so I better make sure and do this as well as I can.

I Hung My Head was originally, and this surprised me greatly, a song by Mr Gordon Sumner – or Sting as he’s been called for more decades than not. It was featured on his fine 1996 album Mercury Falling and was written from both his fondness for Westerns and his interest in country music – which is also pretty notable on one of the album’s singles, ‘I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying’.

A somewhat dark tune in narrative, it’s the story of a young man who, having borrowed his brother’s rifle, shoots a stranger while practicing his aim. Whether the shot is fired by accident / on purpose isn’t really clear but it’s about facing the consequences – “I orphaned his children, I widowed his wife” – as much as anything else. Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I’m gonna dig a song like that.

So, the original:

It’s a fine song in its writer’s hands but…. I don’t know. There’s something about the narrative vs Sting’s arrangement on record that clashes a little too much for me. The music is very much a… 90’s Hugh Padgham & Sting sound with too much bounce, synth and brass to work with the song as a western or story like this. It’s almost like Nick Cave doing a reggae version of Red Right Hand.

For a good western style song about murder and begging for God’s mercy there’s really only once voice that you think of… a voice that sounds like it was hewed from granite, gargled gravel for breakfast to wash away the pain of life itself and still carry a tune…. the Man in Black himself; Johnny Cash. American IV, the final album Johnny Cash released during his lifetime and features his own rendition of Sting’s song.

The production is minimal, the sound stripped to just an acoustic guitar, the odd sustained piano chord and Cash’s aged, world-weary voice taking the song into a different time signature and turning into a starker, more direct and hard-hitting tale.

There’s a change in lyrics here too as with some of Cash’s over readings – the rifle in Cash’s take is thrown “into the sheen” and the rider “kept on runnin’ into the south lands” rather than Sting’s “salt lands”. It so suits him that I thought this was a Cash original at first – his voice and approach means that it’s one of those rare times that a cover version feels to have more authenticity than the original. Here:

In a strange connect-the-dots way, American V, released after Cash’s death in 2003, featured his take on Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Further On Up The Road’. It wasn’t the first time he’d covered Bruce – notable takes on ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Highway Patrolman’ were included on Cash’s 1983 album Johnny 99 and there’s a cracking version of ‘I’m On Fire’ on the Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album.

Springsteen and Sting are also pretty firm friends, with the two sharing a mic on many occasion and a drink on even more. So, in 2014 when Sting was made a Kennedy Center Honoree and the time came for the obligatory performance of one of his songs by another artist…. it was Bruce Springsteen that stepped up to provide a highlight and bring the house down  with ‘I Hung My Head’, a song he’d already been playing (Sting’s songs were also performed by Lady Gaga, Esperanza Spalding and Bruno Mars) with a song that seemed as perfectly suited to late-career Bruce as it did Johnny Cash.

Before I drop spill into Bruce’s version, here – for reference – is Sting’s reaction to hearing one of his songs played… perhaps not as favourably:

Thing is, I think it’s fair to say that when Bruce covers a song he kind of makes it his own and it’s certainly the case with ‘I Hung My Head’ – his reading is closer to Cash’s take and he seems to get caught up in the emotion of the narrative but then he also gives it the full band treatment and turns it into a Springsteen song much, it’s clear, to the delight of the song’s writer. Again, Bruce makes a few lyrical changes in his take – substituting “I beg their forgiveness” with “I ask no forgiveness” along with the ending “I pray for God’s mercy” giving way to “I ask for no mercy” because in Springsteen’s songs his characters own their crimes and face the consequences.

Personally I think Bruce – in his charged and committed performance – pretty much takes the prize. But that’s just my opinion…

3 thoughts on “I Hung My Head – 3 Versions

  1. I heard Sting’s version way before the other two – it’s a really good song at a point where his career was getting spotty. Cash and Springsteen’s versions both take it out of Sting’s tricky time signature and put it in straight 4/4. I really don’t enjoy listening to Cash’s baritone, but Springsteen’s version is good – has more gravitas than Sting’s voice.

  2. Great post! I like both Johnny Cash’s and Bruce Springsteen’s renditions. Also dig Sting’s original. Cash’s aging voice and the stripped back delivery make his rendition really powerful. In Springsteen’s version, I particularly like the build.

    I also find it moving to watch Sting’s emotional reactions to Jose Feliciano (who also has done amazing covers of other songs) and the Boss.

  3. I appreciate the kudos but my wife (at least) will tell you there’s nothing particularly magnificent about me. As to the song, didn’t know it but I dig it. And yeah, as good as Sting is and despite the fact he wrote it, it is in better hands with Cash or Bruce. I’d probably go with the Bruce as well just ‘coz I like him better. That said, while I’m not much of a country fan, Johnny Cash is probably my favorite country guy. No reason to hang your head on this post mate.

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