The 1995 film ‘Dead Man Walking’ was directed by Tim Robbins based on a non-fiction book of the same name by a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, about her work as a spiritual adviser to two convicted murderers on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary. The film starred Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, who was nominated for an Academy Award along with Robbins and Bruce Springsteen who wrote the song ‘Dead Man Walking’ for the film. Robbins and his brother David Robbins, who wrote the score and co-produced, contacted musicians they liked to write songs inspired by the film. This was then released as a record, but only four of the songs on the album appeared in the film.
Johnny Cash took a religious slant on redemption and damnation with ‘In Your Mind’, Springsteen sang from the point of view of a condemned man and Suzanne Vega from the viewpoint of Sister Helen herself. Earle had previously written songs in the voice of a condemned men and so took a very different approach in ‘Ellis Unit One’ and focussed on the de-humanising impact of the death penalty on one of the guards on death row.
Earle’s opposition to the death penalty is well documented and he has previously stated that his opposition arises from the damage it does to “my spirit. I object to my government killing people because my government is meant to be me and I object to me killing people.” ‘Ellis Unit One’ is a powerful song, much better than many others on the album, even those by some great artists like Tom Waits and Lyle Lovett. The lyrics describe watching condemned men going to their deaths:
‘Well, I’ve seen em fight like lions, boys
I’ve seen ’em go like lambs
And I’ve helped to drag em when they could not stand
And I’ve heard their mamas cryin’ when they heard that big door slam
And I’ve seen the victim’s family holdin’ hands’
Ultimately, at the end of the song, the guard himself dreams about being executed.
This is a great hushed and intimate performance of an astounding song.