Pat Hare Murders His Baby

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Archibald Motley: “Nightlife” (1943, oil on canvas, detail) (Art Institute of Chicago; Chicago Maroon)

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.
Shakespeare, Othello

Cheatin’ and lyin’

On December 15, 1963, Minneapolis police apprehended an intoxicated 33-year-old man involved in a domestic dispute that left his married girlfriend and a responding police officer shot and mortally wounded. The officer died in an ambulance en route to a hospital, but the woman lingered for nearly a month, succumbing to her injuries the following January. The suspect, though injured in the gunfire, lived to stand trial and was hastily convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment that February. A musician of some note, a sideman to some of the biggest names in blues who helped pioneer the distorted guitar sound of post-mid-‘60s rock, he was virtually unemployable by the time of his arrest due to worsening alcoholism. The tragedy that ended his career that winter night – precipitated by a lethal mix of jealousy, booze, and firearms and ending with pools of blood and lost or broken lives – was a predictable finale to a saga writ large in the blues itself but also curiously prefigured in his own music. It was an old story that, in a sense, had been brewing for years, decades, or since the dawn of man.

Good morning, Judge

And your jury too

I’ve got a few things that I’d like to

Say to you

I’m gonna murder my baby

Yes, I’m gonna murder my baby

Yes, I’m gonna murder my baby

Don’t do nothin’ but cheat and lie

Pat Hare: “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” (1954)

Auburn “Pat” Hare was born poor on an Arkansas farm in 1930. His birth name alone might have led him to the blues, but whatever his motivation he started playing guitar at 10 and was schooled in his teens on the instrument by Joe Willie Wilkins of Sonny Boy (Rice Miller) Williamson’s band. A quick study, he was soon gigging with Sonny Boy on the “King Biscuit Time” radio show and with Howlin’ Wolf onstage as Pat Hare – a nickname mercifully given to him by his grandmother. Anecdotes are hard to source and sometimes contradictory, but he seems from an early age to have been amiable when sober but fraught and unpredictable when drunk. Stable enough to marry and support three children, possibly tall tales still describe alcohol-fueled scuffles with other musicians (including the imposing Wolf, whom Hare is supposed to have taken a shot at) and a brawl involving a farm rake that left him with a permanently bent finger. Less sensationally, he also played minor league baseball. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s he was an in-demand accompanist to a roster of blues greats including – in addition to Sonny Boy and Wolf – James Cotton, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Junior Parker.

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Blues greats: (left to right) Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Cotton, Junior Parker (1950s/early ’60s) (promo photos, photographers unknown, various sources)

Relocated to Memphis, in 1952 he came onto the radar of musical Midas Sam Phillips – best known as the discoverer of Elvis and a pantheon of founding rock and roll demigods, but also a prodigious scout for blues talent. That same year he seems to have been fired from Wolf’s band but settled into a steady gig as a session player for Phillips’ Sun label. The association led to Hare’s first (and last) recordings under his own name – a pair of sides recorded for a single in 1954 but ultimately rejected for release by Phillips for unclear reasons (they would remain officially unissued until 1982). Listening to the incendiary would-be A-side proffers a guess: a monstrously grim dose of barrel-house piano boogie, fuzz-tone guitar, and Hare’s own straining tenor vocal, “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” still shocks for its aggressive sound and homicidal humor.

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Cover art for “Bonus Pay” – the less provocative track Hare recorded at Sun in 1954 (reissue cover art, Sun Records SP104) (Crazy Times Music)

Yes, she left home in the mornin’

She didn’t get back ‘til night

She swears before her maker

That she’s treatin’ me right

I’m gonna murder my baby

Yes, I’m gonna murder my baby
Yes, I’m gonna murder my baby

Don’t do nothin’ but cheat and lie

Fourteen years later, a London session player named Jimmy Page would forge a similar sound of intricate guitar runs and distorted chords atop heavy blues with Led Zeppelin – but with three equally shrill fellow musicians and a stack of Marshall amps. Hare’s back-up on “Murder” is just that – back-up – and his bombastic guitar sound was achieved by “turning the volume knob of his Sears & Roebuck cereal-box-sized amp all the way to the right until the speaker was screaming” (in writer/musician Cub Koda’s memorable words). Zeppelin would also mine the blues for lyrics (often without attribution) and Page penned some comparably nasty verses about women (“Lots of people talkin’ / few of them know / Soul of a woman / was created below”), but singer Robert Plant’s hammer-of-the-gods delivery obliterated the sly humor that often characterizes such utterances in the blues. Regardless, with such volatile sounds on wax at 706 Union Avenue, it’s perhaps understandable that – in that Billboard Top Ten year of  “Secret Love” and “Oh! My Pa-Pa” – even the risk-taker who gave Elvis and Jerry Lee to the world blanched, in the end, at releasing the track.

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Musical Midas: Sam Phillips (far right) with (left to right) Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore at Sun Studios, 1954 (un-sourced news photo, AP/IBD)

Not that “Murder’s” sentiment or scenario were unique. Hare’s song is an extreme example, but blues singers have been threatening to kill their babies since the genre’s birth, and in songs as diverse in tone as Pink Anderson and Simmie Dooley’s hokum “Papa’s ‘Bout to Get Mad” (1928) (“You gonna keep on messin’ ‘round, honey / until you get my goat / Remember, I got a razor / and you got a great big throat”) to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ doomy “Bring Me My Shotgun” (1960) (“The only reason I don’t shoot you, little woman / my double-barrel shotgun, it won’t fire”). Country and hillbilly analogues abound, from Clarence Ashley shooting Little Sadie down (1930) to Johnny Cash dispatching Delia with his “sub-mo-chine” (1994). Rock and roll – blues and country’s unruly child – follows suit. Grim, even hateful, these songs may be, but despite periodic misapprehension from well-meaning zealots (both left and right) they remain songs: cultural constructs that express intense emotions through music and fictive narratives (even when based on fact).

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Pat Hare Murders His Baby — 2 Comments

  1. I love the Blues for its ability to give an honest depiction of a tough life set to deceptively simple chord progressions driving toward release and catharsis. This article weaves the threads of society, music, culture, substance abuse, and psychology in an insightful yet deeply compassionate manner. Better than a month of therapy — Steven Jones — you have rocked Murder Ballad Monday again.