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Evolution of Outlaw Music

Music is a diverse form of expression that takes in many styles. It's a popular field that can only be briefly sampled in a short article.

Butch Cassidy and Some of His Professional Acquaintances

Outlaws often Liked To Enjoy Some of the Finer Things in Life

Outlaws often Liked To Enjoy Some of the Finer Things in Life

Outlaws, Yesterday and Today

"Everybody wants to be the Cowboy, living the Wild West style, ... everyone wants to be the outlaw, everyone's tough and no one is going to back down." from Everyone Wants to Be by Ziggy Marley

Outlaws have always been with us and probably always will be. These mavericks have often been romanticized and even idolized in both song and story, even though, their lifestyles have been quite violent and deadly. Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin and Billy the Kid, all left a bloody trail in their wake. Historians may illustrate the troubled times these people live in, but still, they all died young and always on the wrong end of a gun.

Outlaw Music

As early as the 1930s, Country-styled music bands took on American outlaws, as their visual motif, such as Jack LeFever and his Texas Outlaws, whom are pictured here,

As early as the 1930s, Country-styled music bands took on American outlaws, as their visual motif, such as Jack LeFever and his Texas Outlaws, whom are pictured here,

A Colorful, Swashbuckling Movie and TV Show

You can't have a movie or TV program about an outlaw without an enticing theme song. As expected, in the 50s TV show, Zorro, and also in the 1938 movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood, a catchy theme song accompanies the action. Although Zorro and Robin Hood cannot be directly traced to any one individual, the characters are linked to a time and place, when bandits flourished in a culturally and economically changing locale.

The Sherwood Forest Today

The Sherwood Forest Today

The Sherwood Forest Today

The Robbin' Hoods

The Sherwood Forest is and was real, the Sheriff of Nottingham was real and so was Robin Hood, but the latter was most likely a generic term that referred to a slew of unlawful characters, who did rob from the rich, but probably did not give one pence to the poor. On the other hand, no historical evidence has been found to support the existence of a Maid Marian, Friar Tuck or Little John. These people were most likely created by skilled storytellers. Nonetheless, the Legend of Robin Hood does say something about the 12th and 13th century economic conditions in the East Midlands of Jolly Ole England.

Campy Robin Hood

Who Was Zorro?

Zorro, ("fox" in Spanish) was a fictional character, created by Johnston McCully in 1919. However, the popular tale of this masked marauder does appear to have some historical pretext in the previous century. According to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, cultural changes in Southern California in the mid 1800s, did create banditos and outlaws .

One individual of note, was Salomon Pico, who terrorized American settlers and gold miners, attracted to the region during the Great Gold Rush of 1849. Other sources, attribute the Zorro legend to Joaquin Murrieta, another California bandit of the same era, who also preyed on the Anglo newcomers.. Take your pick.


The Wild West

Not only did The Civil War produce a large number of casualties, but in the aftermath, the armed conflict left behind many desperate and hungry people. Not surprisingly, the post-war years also produced some bloody and violent outlaws. Two of the most notorious, Jesse James and John Wesley Hardin, are featured here in song.

The Fate of Many Old West Outlaws

Deceased Dalton Gang Outlaws On Display in Kansas in 1892

Deceased Dalton Gang Outlaws On Display in Kansas in 1892

Frank and Jesse James

The Ballad of John Wesley Hardin

On the West Virginia Line

McDowell county, West Virginia is situated on the Tug River not too far from Hatfield and McCoy country. The song, John Hardy, was about a 1890s railroad man, who killed one man, was caught, tried and hanged.Not the most colorful life story for an outlaw, but because John Hardy found salvation before he died, a popular song was penned.

Listen closely to the words and music of these the tales of John Hardy and john Wesley Hardin, for the musical and lyrical parallels are fascinating.

The Story of John Hardy

Twentieth Century Bandits

Though the world well remembered the bloody antics of the James Gang and John Wesley Hardin,the turn of the new century brought good economic times and a hope that this outlaw thing was just colorful history.

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The Great Depression changed all that, as hard times once again produced desperate men. This time Oklahoma, the heart of the Dust Bowl, seems to have played a central roll in this new type of outlaw, who substituted an automobile for a horse and picked up a "Tommy Gun" to supplement his deadly arsenal.

A Movie Inspires a Song

Though Georgie Fame sang this popular number, the Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde was written by Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, right after the Bonnie and Clyde movie was released. Don't confuse this song with the Legend of Bonnie and Clyde, another movie-inspired musical number, which was written and sung by Merle Haggard and also became a number one hit.

Legend of Bonnie and Clyde

A Modern Day Robin Hood?

Charles Arthur Floyd, better known as "Pretty Boy Floyd" also went by the handle of The Robin Hood of Cookson Hills (Oklahoma). Modern historians believe that there is some truth to this story, as Pretty Boy had a colorful habit of burning up mortgages, when he robbed a bank and then sometimes sharing his takings with those in need.

The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd

Anybody Can Be an Outlaw

Nowadays, it is literally quite possible for anybody to be an outlaw. Such is the reality of modern day life. Featured here are two musicians, who have put that reality to music. First up, is Bill Chinnock, a music prodigy from the Jersey Shore, who predated Springsteen by just a few years.

After that, there is Hazel Dickens a West Virginia native, who spent much of her adult life in Baltimore.

Urban Outlaw

Are They Gonna Make Us Outlaws Again

The Heyday of Country and Western Outlaw Music

Sometime in the late sixties or early seventies, a controversial group of Texas musicians came up with a popular slew of songs that caught the interest of Country Music fans everywhere. Contrary to popular belief, their intent was never to become outlaws, but the name stuck and the rest is history.

The following two musical numbers by David Allan Coe and Waylon Jennings give a good perspective as to how this musical genre came about.

David Allen Coe Sounds Off

The Outlaw Anthem

Looking Back on the Good Ole Days

Not many outlaws got to reminisce because they didn't live that long. This was especially true back in the glory days of the Old Wild West, when most bandits and bank robbers died a violent and early death.

By contrast, a contemporary Country & Western outlaw singer can often reach that precious point in life, where he (or she) may enjoy the privilege of looking back at the wilder times. Billy Joe Shaver does just that as he performs this Willie Nelson song, "Hard To Be an Outlaw".

Hard To Be an Outlaw

The Outlaw Poster

Today, being a musical outlaw can be (legally) quite lucrative

Today, being a musical outlaw can be (legally) quite lucrative

The Ballad of Pancho and Lefty

Back in 1973, Townes Van Zandt wrote Pancho and Lefty, presumably about the great Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and his sidekick, Lefty. Though there is no mistaking the real-life existence of Pancho, Lefty's story may be partially or even completely fictionalized. Nonetheless, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered the tune in 1983 and each went on to make millions off their outlaw Super Hit. As for Townes, Pancho and Lefty helped the Fort Worth native to go on and earn the title, as the "Greatest Songwriter that Texas Ever Produced."

Keep an eye out for Townes, who makes a cameo (holding the guitar) near the end of the video.

Pancho and Lefty (Willie and Merle respectively)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Harry Nielsen

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