The Tragedy of Big Willie

There’s this song. It’s called Big Willie Broke Jail.

Song’s pretty cool, I like it, I like some of the subtle details about it – like this is about a community being deputised to deal with a dangerous criminal, rather than about ‘the cops’ doing it. It’s got a good rhythm to it, and if I, an uneducated person on the matter, might call it ‘Mexican.’ This is the earliest version by a guy called Gus Backus, who is primarily known nowadays as a Schlager singer in Germany. He passed away in 2019.

I don’t like this version, not really? It’s a recording from the 1960s, and it shows – the mixing makes him sound kinda ‘soft’ and underwater, his enunciation isn’t quite my style, and while the music is fun, it’s a bit simple-sounding? I don’t mean to sound like I know how to do better, but I just know I like music that feels a bit more like the people involved are having fun. Definitely a 1960s country song style.

And now, unbelievably, Content Warning: some mentions of child sexual assault.

Now, this isn’t the version I know of this song. The version I know, growing up, was a different version from a tape of comedy songs. It was on the second side of a tape of I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, good ole wholesome radio vaudeville nonsense by the pre-Python comedians that embarrass themselves a lot these days.

The version I remember was by Rolf Harris.

Obviously, I don’t want to listen to that one any more.

I went looking for an alternative recently, because I remember the song, I like it, and I don’t like the original. And I found this:

This version sounds great. I like the way it works, and it’s a little later on in the way these records sound. It’s also got that kind of distinctive Australian broadness to it, and the voice is fantastic.

Yeah except this is by John Laws.

John Laws, if you’re not aware, is an Australian singer who first got his career as the golden voice. He was a classic mainstay of Australian radio, all the quality and fame and all that. Then, he retired to music to dedicate himself full-time to his new career of being the guy who sucks ass. John Laws is one of Australia’s conservative AM radio dipshit class, the kind of guy who thinks a 20 minute anecdote about how many Chinese taxi drivers there are in Sydney qualifies as ‘commentary.’ John Laws is corrupt, having taken money to advertise as if it was his opinion. He’s homophobic, having been critical of Queer Eye for The Straight Guy – the original series. He’s racist, and you can tell he’s racist because he insists he’s not racist, he just thinks Chinese people can’t drive. He is misogynistic and awful in his vision of victims of sexual abuse, having blamed victims in interviews to their faces and telling a child sexual assault survivor that he needed to toughen up.

Let me be clear: If tomorrow I found that John Laws had been trampled to death by wild camels and pooped on by every one, I would be mad that it hadn’t happened earlier. John Laws is a sign of our banal cultural evil. John Laws is the kind of person who reminds me that the world gets better one funeral at a time.

John Laws sucks.

Well, this puts me in a pickle, huh. Three versions of this song. One, sung by a guy who isn’t even remembered for singing it. One, sung by a genuinely evil Australian export. One, sung by a genuinely evil Australian domestic product. What the hell. Is this song cursed? Even a third version from a British artist – Clinton Ford – was apparently performed in drag, which just has so much potential for yikes.

But the thing is none of these people are responsible for Big Willie Broke Jail Tonight.

Not really.

Any given work is a product of multiple people. If not the artist necessarily, the people who helped guide and shape the artist. There’s a host of interconnected things that come into play when you make something, and that gets us to Actor Network Theory, which is, you know, not about actors, nor uses networks, nor is a theory. And, looking into this song to try and find other versions, I found, to my amazement, a credit that was easily missed.

Big Willie Broke Jail Tonight was written by a writing team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. This is a fairly distinctive pair of names, and looking them up, they had a career writing songs for other artists that reached from during World War II to 2003. And what did they do in that career?

Um.

A lot of songs. For a lot of people. They wrote Bye Bye Love, they wrote Hole in my Pocket, they wrote Love Hurts, they wrote Wake Up Little Susie, they wrote All I Have To Do Is Dream. And, yeah, they wrote this song, of which, it seems, no good version exists.

There is a lesson here about separating art from artist. But there’s also a lesson about looking deeper into the way things are connected, and the way they relate to one another.

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