What do you know about John Wesley Hardin? Maybe through song – the one in which he was “a friend to the poor”, who “travelled with a gun in every hand” (ladies and gentlemen – the 2016 Nobel prize for literature). Or maybe you know him from reality, as a gunslinger who reputedly killed his first victim aged 15, or who once shot a man just for snoring.
Or, you may know him through Top Trump’s Western Gunfighters series. In which case, you’ll assume he looked a lot like Willie Thorne.
Bob Dylan may have portrayed Harding (sic) as romantic hero, forever on the outside, forever on the run, but a quick scan of the facts reveals its fair to assume he was probably not quite the Robin Hood figure immortalised in song.
Dylan, of course, wasn’t the first to romanticise the outlaw in popular culture. Indeed, he would repeat the trick in 1976, with ‘Joey’.
In the movies, it was Bonnie and Clyde who ushered in New Hollywood, followed by the likes of Billy the Kid and Captain America in Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the film of the same name, and where the duo are more roughish anti-heroes than outlaws, pursued throughout the film by a decidedly nasty posse hired by the establishment in order to protect its mercantile interests.
Before all that, Dylan’s hero, Woody Guthrie, eulogised Pretty Boy Floyd as a kind of dustbowl-era Robin Hood. Later on, some country boys set-up an outlaw movement. Stagger Lee remains a whole industry to himself.
Like the Capone gang in The Scarface Mob, Guthrie’s Floyd is a folk hero, giving away Christmas dinners to the needy:
It was in Oklahoma City,
It was on a Christmas Day,
There was a whole car load of groceries
Come with a note to say:
“Well, you say that I’m an outlaw,
You say that I’m a thief.
Here’s a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.”
Crucially, the song draws a distinction between one type of criminal and other:
Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
Or, to put it another way, as Leo (Thomas Gomez) says in Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil says of the garage business: “three cents overcharge on every gallon of gas. Two cents for the chauffeur and a penny for me. Penny for one thief, two cents for the other”.
Force of Evil, released in 1948, is a somewhat dangerous film from an establishment perspective. Unlike films where business has become corrupted by criminal syndicates, here business itself is a crime, insidious enterprises like real estate, “stealing credit like a thief.” It’s no wonder Polonsky found himself on the wrong end of the blacklist.
In the shadow of the blacklist, as American society at large grew plump films like Force of Evil became almost impossible to make. Conformity, even at the height of rock ‘n’ roll, very much the default option. Even Elvis was polite to his elders, eventually being shipped overseas, a willing participant in Cold War mobilisation. It would take the psychic shock of Vietnam, political assassinations and rioting to stir the youth, to get folk out of the coffee houses, to reignite the creative fire of rock n’n roll. Also, the drugs might have had something to do with it.
We are living in dangerous times. The war on crime, the barely-submerged xenophobia of the war on terror, and all that fake news.
As popular culture is seemingly mired in superheroes, maybe is is time once again for the outlaw.