Sting, “I Hung My Head”

Written by May 7th, 2012 at 7:00 am

Sting has written some really great songs that won’t go down as classics or standards because, frankly, his vocabulary and melodies are usually more sophisticated than what the pop market can bear. But in “I Hung My Head,” from his 1996 album Mercury Falling, Sting managed to – as Malcolm X says at the beginning of Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” – “talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.”

In “I Hung My Head,” Sting tells the story of a young man on a farm or ranch who, just messing around with his brother’s rifle one morning, accidentally shoots a distant rider off his horse. The song certainly didn’t have much of a rural or Western flavor, however, with Hugh Padgham’s trademark production and drum sounds, and Dominic Miller’s effected electric guitar, making the recording sound more like a 1980s Police or Phil Collins record. Nevertheless, the song is as cinematic as anything Sting has ever written. It’s impossible to listen to lines like “A shot rang out/Across the land/The horse, he kept running/The rider was dead” and “Here in the court house/The whole town was there/I see the judge/High up in the chair” and not see an episode of Bonanza or Gunsmoke in your mind’s eye.

Then, in 2002, on American IV: The Man Comes Around, released less than a year before his death, Johnny Cash covered “I Hung My Head” in a completely different way. With sparse production featuring little more than an acoustic guitar and an occasional sustained piano chord on the low end, Cash, whose aging voice belied his deteriorating physical condition, gave a reading that was probably more credible than Sting’s version, perhaps because of Cash’s rural American background. Cash wasn’t completely true to Sting’s original melody and performed the song in 4/4 time, not in the 9/8 compound time Sting recorded it in, making it less epic and more stark and to the point.

Cash (or whomever gave the lyrics to him) misread or misheard Sting’s original words and sang “My brother’s rifle went into the sheen” instead of “into the stream,” and “I kept on runnin’ into the south lands” instead of “salt lands,” which perhaps indicated that the original location Sting had in mind was more desert than midwestern. Regardless, the impact was the same, and this song, on an album that also featured Cash’s version of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” helped bring Cash to the forefront of American music as he hadn’t been since the 1960s.

In the end, both versions hold up because a well-written song that creates immediate visual images will always stand the test of time, no matter who records it. “I Hung My Head” is one of those songs, and will go down as one of Sting’s finest, and most accessible, compositions.

Sting also performed “I Hung My Head” with full orchestra on his 2010 symphonic release Symphonicities, and included a performance of it on the excellent 2010 DVD Live in Berlin. A remastered version of the original is included in 2011’s ridiculously overpriced Sting: 25 Years.

“I Hung My Head”

Early one morning with time to kill
I borrowed Jeb’s rifle and sat on the hill
I saw a lone rider crossing the plain
I drew a bead on him to practice my aim
My brother’s rifle went off in my hand
A shot rang out across the land
The horse he kept running, the rider was dead
I hung my head, I hung my head

I set off running to wake from the dream
And my brother’s rifle went into the stream
I kept on running into the salt lands
And that’s where they found me, my head in my hands
The sheriff he asked me “Why had I run”
Then it came to me just what I had done
And all for no reason, just one piece of lead
I hung my head, I hung my head

Here in the courthouse, the whole town is there
I see the judge high up in his chair
“Explain to the courtroom what went through your mind
And we’ll ask the jury what verdict they find”
I said “I felt the power of death over life
I orphaned his children, I widowed his wife
I beg their forgiveness, I wish I was dead”
I hung my head, I hung my head

Early one morning with time to kill
I see the gallows up on the hill
And out in the distance a trick of the brain
I see a lone rider crossing the plain
He’s come to fetch me to see what they done
We’ll ride together ‘til Kingdom come
I pray for God’s mercy for soon I’ll be dead
I hung my head, I hung my head

- Written by Sting

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