Thursday, June 8, 2006

Two Hangmen

Among my favourite songs is "Two Hangmen," a song released by the band Mason Proffit in 1969. The late Fifties had seen folk music soar in popularity with the emergence of the Kingston Trio and such artists as Bob Dylan. By the mid-Sixties many artists, such as The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel, had blended folk music with rock music to create the subgenre known as folk rock. Mason Profitt fell into this category. The band was formed by brothers Terry and John Talbot. Terry Talbot had performed with such artists as Glen Campbell, Sonny & Cher, and Chad Mitchell.

Mason Proffit developed a bit of a following, with successful tours and soldout concerts. They opened for The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, among others. From 1969 to 1974 they released five albums. Depsite this, they were never a huge success commercially. In 1974 the band disbanded so that John Talbot could engage in religious pursuits. His brother Terry continued to perform, even touring with The Eagles. The band was reformed in 2003 by Terry Talbot. While John's religious obligations keep him from touring with the band, he does still record with them. The band has released two albums since reforming.

"Two Hangmen" was perhaps their biggest hit. To this day it still receives airplay on radio stations across the country. For me the appeal of the song is that it tells a story which can be interpreted on many levels. The lyrics are below:

As I rode into Tombstone on my horse whose name was Mac
I saw what I'll relate to you goin' on behind my back
It seems the folks were up in arms a man now had to die
For believin' things that didn't fit the laws they'd set aside
The man's name was I'm a freak the best that I could see
He was the executioner a hangman just like me
I guess that he'd seen loopholes from workin' with his rope
He'd hung the wrong man many times so now he turned to hope

He'd talk to all the people from his scaffold in the square
He told them of the things he found;
But they didn't seem to care
He said the laws were obsolete, a change they should demand
But the people only walked away, he couldn't understand

The Marshall's name was Uncle Sam he said he'd right this wrong
He'd make the hangman shut his mouth if it took him all year long
He finally arrested Freak and then he sent for me
To hang a fellow hangman from a fellow hangman's tree

It didn't take them long to try him in their court of law
He was guilty then of thinking a crime much worse than all
They sentenced him to die so his seed of thought can't spread
And infect the little children; that's what the law had said

So the hangin' day came 'round and he walked up to the noose
I pulled the lever but before he fell I cut him loose
They called it all conspiracy and that I had to die
So to close our mouths and kill our minds they hung us side by side

And now we're two hangmen hangin' from a tree
That don't bother me at all
Two hangmen hangin' from a tree
That don't bother me at all

At its most basic level, "Two Hangmen" is a protest song. The song is ostenisbly set in the Old West. The narrator rides into town on a horse. There is a reference to Tombstone (presumably, Tombstone, Arizona, where the gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place). There is also a reference to a marshall (the profession commonly held by heroes in Westerns). Despite this, the lyrics would seem to be directed against the Vietnam War and perhaps other percieved injustices of the time. Freak speaks from his gallows, telling the folks of the injustices that he has seen. Sadly for Freak, the people do not wish to listen. This reflects the situtation as percieved by many protesters in the late Sixties. For all their protests, many of them could not help but feel that the general populace did not want to hear what they had to say. Furthermore, many felt as if they were being condemned for their views; not condemned to death, as Freak was, but condemned nonetheless.

One thing I find signficant about "Two Hangmen" is that the protagonists are both hangmen. Hanging was the traditional method of executing criminals going back to the times of the Anglo-Saxon kings. In Anglo-Saxon paganism it may well have been associated with the god Woden, who was known to the Vikings as Odhinn, whom the Vikings did associate with hanging. According to myth Odhinn hanged on the World Tree and obtained knowledge of the runes. He was further said to sit beneath the gallows to get knowledge from hanged men. As Odhinn was the god of wisdom and was associated with hanging, it is perhaps signficant that Freak's crime was "thinking" and that he was condemned to death so that he would not spread his thoughts. The song would then seem to be rooted in views possibly held by the ancient Germanic peoples (to which both the Anglo-Saxon peoples and Vikings belonged) on a link between arcane knowledge and hanging.

The link between hanging and knowledge doesn't seem to have been limited to the ancient Germanic peoples. While interpretations of Tarot cards vary greatly, I seem to recall that many associated the Tarot card called the Hanged Man with the pursuit of knowledge. The poet Maurice Ogden also associated hangmen with mysterious knowledge, as well as dealing out justice, in his poem "The Hangman."

Regardless, the general theme of "Two Hangmen" would seem to be that many people consider knowledge to be dangerous and are willing to silence those who possess such knowledge. At the same time, however, given that the two hangmen die for their beliefs, it is a statement on the importance of remaining faithful to one's beliefs regardless of the costs. In this respect, the meaning of "Two Hangmen" goes well beyond that of the typical Vietnam War protest song. It is a song about the importance of belief that can have meaning for nearly anyone of any faith or creed. While I can see that the song links to myths and folklore, its most important message is one that is ageless and universal.

On their latest album, Mason Proffit has a remake of "Two Hangmen." It is good, as might be expected, but it doesn't nearly match the original.


Bob said...

It should be noted that this songs lyrics so scared the powers that be of the time that the FCC banned it from radio play.

thom wessels said...

I've always loved this song. Mason Proffit was from Iowa City, Iowa only a few miles from my hometown. They hit the spot with this song.