I Hung My Head
"I Hung My Head" is a song written by the singer-songwriter Sting and released on the 1996 album Mercury Falling. It reflects Sting's childhood fondness for TV Westerns, as well as his avowed interest in Country music, but also - as so often with Sting - tackles deeper and more philosophical themes of life and death, justice and redemption. In 2002, Johnny Cash covered the song in the album American IV: The Man Comes Around.
It tells the story of a boy who accidentally kills someone, the resulting shame, and the consequences he faces.
The story is told from the point of view of a young man who takes his brother's rifle out onto the hill one morning. As a rider crosses the plain, the singer takes aim ("I drew a bead on him; to practice my aim.") The rifle goes off in his hands, killing the rider.
The man runs to the salt lands, throwing the rifle into a stream. (The Cash cover changes "salt lands" to "south lands", and "stream" to "sheen". Sting supposed the latter was due to a misprint in the lyrics Cash was using.) He is discovered by a sheriff, and is struck by the realization of what he has done.
He is brought before a judge and jury, where he begs forgiveness and wishes he was dead. Awaiting execution on the gallows, he sees as a "trick of the brain" the rider return, so that they will ride together "till kingdom come". The man prays to God for mercy.
The song is one of very few popular tunes written in compound time 9/8. The curious offbeat rhythm has the effect of alternating 4-beat and 5-beat bars. The drum beat is syncopated, on the 3rd and 8th beats. In the Johnny Cash cover, the signature of the song was changed to standard 4/4.
The Johnny Cash cover of the song was featured in the Season Six premiere of The Shield, and was played over the opening and closing of the episode. The episode dealt with the aftermath (guilt, recriminations and anger) of the murder of a central character by his partner, who mistakenly believed that the victim had betrayed him.
The Cash cover of the song also features in the film The Green Hornet.