Checking out Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around at the local library I took a listen and found two tracks down from Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt was Hung My Head. When I would play Sting’s Hung My Head from his album Mercury Falling at a friend’s home, I would play over and over again. My friend was patient with me however she did ask why I liked such a depressing song? It was not the lyrics really, but the tune. Sting’s original version had an electric guitar riff that resinated something in my brain that I just really enjoyed.
Cash’s version is of a country and acoustic based composition that thunders its way to a climatic end. It has the same goose bump affect as his version of Hurt.
The whole album by Cash is of covers however Cash in his brilliance and tortured voice brings the songs to a whole new level. Personal Jesus, for instance was done as an acoustic version of Martin Gore‘s song, which featured a simple acoustic riff that stripped down the song to a blues style. This was an improvement in my opinion of Marylyn Manson’s version of Personal Jesus.
“I Hung My Head” is a murder ballad written by the singer-songwriter Sting and released on the album Mercury Falling. In 2002, Johnny Cash covered the song in the album American IV: The Man Comes Around along with several other contemporary songs.
The song begins describing a young man who takes his brother’s rifle out onto the hill early one morning, with time to kill (an idiomatic phrase originating from The Bible foreshadowing the event of the rider’s death) to practice his aim. As a lone rider rides across the plain, he takes aim at the rider as he moves to practice his aim (“I drew a bead on him; to practice my aim”) and accidentally pulls the trigger, killing the rider.
Without fully realizing the implications of his accident (“To wake from the dream”), he sets off running into the southlands of Ireland, throwing the rifle into the Sheen, a river that flows into Kenmare Bay. [Citation needed] Eventually he is discovered by a sheriff and in a moment of realization understands the implications of his actions even though he does not fully understand their meaning (“And all for no reason, just one piece of lead”).
He is brought before a Judge and jury and in front of his entire town to account for his actions and feels the power of death over life as the jury reaches their verdict; realizing that he had orphaned the rider’s children and widowed his wife, he wishes he were dead.
The preceding section of the song describes how, in the morning he is to be hanged for his transgressions; another morning with time to kill (referring to the actions of the hangmen, the courts and the appointment of the hanging). Before the period of his hanging, he imagines in a “trick of the brain” that he sees the rider he had killed return to save him from his fate and that he will ride alongside him “till kingdom come“. However, once the daydream is over, the man realizes that he will soon be dead and prays for mercy from God.
The device of escapism features at both the introduction and denouement of the song. In trying to escape the reality of the situation that faces him, he envisages that the events are merely dreams, both positive and negative. The former is illustrated more subtly than the latter; switching from the conditional tense to that of the present continuous when describing the events of his imagined rescue, and the swift progression to the personal realization before his ultimate demise (“I pray for god’s mercy, for soon I’ll be dead”).
The bridge that is repeated throughout the material is “I hung my head”, which, in its first invocations represents the grief and shame the man feels in reflection of his actions. The latter usage, which repeats the phrase until the end of the song suggests that the final act of the man hanging his head is not in shame or grief, but the act of him hanging in the gallows after being sentenced to death.