Bruce Springsteen
Nebraska, ©1982
 Words and Music by Bruce Springsteen

About death, justice, and the nature of evil; this song tells the story of serial killer Charles Starkweather. "Charles Starkweather commenced his reign of terror across the Nebraska farm lands on December 1, 1957 when he murdered Lincoln gas station attendant, Robert Colvert...Almost two months later, Starkweather, while waiting for his girlfriend, 14 year old Caril Ann Fugate to return home, murdered her mother and stepfather with a rifle. When Caril returned home, he strangled Caril's two year old sister in her bed, after which he went to the kitchen where he prepared sandwiches for lunch...Before their capture Starkweather would kill seven more people...Charles Starkweather was executed by electric chair on June 25, 1959. He was 19 years old. Fugate was sentenced to life in prison, but was paroled in 1977."

The story of Charles Starkweather inspired a series of films including Terrence Malick's Badlands (1974) and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994). Bruce Springsteen explained the influences for this song in his 1998 book, Songs, "At home, just before recording Nebraska, I was reading Flannery O' Connor. Her stories reminded me of the unknowability of God and contained a dark spirituality that resonated with my own feelings at the time. Film continued to be an influence. I'd recently seen True Confessions and Terence Malick's Badlands. There was a stillness on the surface of those pictures, while underneath lay a world of moral ambiguity and violence"

Another song that takes a much broader and historic look at evil and the dark side of humanity is the Rolling Stones' Sympathy For The Devil (1968).  The lyrics for this song include references to specific people and events ( Anastasia Romanov, Russian Revolution, World War II, Holocaust, assassination of John F. Kennedy ) and were inspired by The Master and The Margarita, a book by Mikhail Bulgakov.

In 2002, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards stated, "Evil - people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn't rear its ugly head. Sympathy for the Devil is just as appropriate now, with 9/11. There it is again, big time. When that song was written, it was a time of turmoil. It was the first sort of international chaos since World War II. And confusion is not the ally of peace and love. You want to think the world is perfect. Everybody gets sucked into that. And as America has found out to its dismay, you can't hide. You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. Sympathy for the Devil is a song that says, Don't forget him. If you confront him, then he's out of a job."

Sympathy For The Devil is also the title of a 1996 Salon Magazine interview with Sister Helen Prejean regarding the movie Dead Man Walking. The movie is adapted from Prejean's 1993 book which detailed her experiences working with death row prisoners. Prejean is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty who explained, "Dead Man Walking is a sustained meditation on love, criminal violence, and capital punishment. In a larger sense, it is about life and death itself. Are we here to persecute our brothers or bring compassion into a world which is cruel without reason?"

The soundtrack for Dead Man Walking includes the song Ellis Unit One by musician and anti-death penalty activist Steve Earle. Earle explained in a (St. Paul/Minnesota) Pioneer Planet interview, "We are all responsible every time someone's executed. There is no 'them.' That's where my objection to the death penalty comes from. I object to the damage it does to my spirit if I kill somebody. And if my government kills somebody in what's ostensibly a democracy, then I'm killing somebody, period...And I think that when we kill any human being, we perpetuate violence."


"Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate". Criminal Justice Central Missouri State University.

"Sympathy For The Devil". Track Talk, Time Is On Our Side

"Sympathy for the Devil: Sister Helen Prejean talks about the condemned men who inspired "Dead Man Walking": by Marc Bruno. Salon 6, January 27-February 9, 1996.

Music and Lyric Resources: Bruce Springsteen The Boss Website

Bruce Springsteen Lyrics

Rolling Stones

Steve Earle

Referenced and Related Works:

Edgar Allan Poe's, The Tell-Tale Heart

Flannery Oconnor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"

Springsteen's "Nebraska"

Pablo Picasso's "Guernica"

Rolling Stone's "Sympathy for the Devil"

Pastor Martin Niemöller

William Heyen's "To The Onlookers"

Walt Whitman's "I Sit and Look Out"

Adolf Hitler's, Mein Kampf

Diary of Anne Frank

Quotes on Evil

Dead Man Walking / Steve Earle's "Ellis Unit One"

Sister Helen Prejean Quotes

William Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice"

YouTube – “Sympathy for the Devil”  ( external page )



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