English in “I Hung My Head” by Sting

Early one morning with time to kill

  • to kill time – to make time seem to pass more quickly by doing something instead of just waiting: I started to draw something, just to kill time.

I borrowed Jeb’s rifle and sat on the hill

I saw a lone rider crossing the plain

Jeb seems to be the name of the man’s brother, whose rifle is borrowed

  • lone – alone: I’m a lone traveler (BUT I travel alone)
  • plain – a large flat area of land: There is a vast plain in this part of the country.

I drew a bead on him to practice my aim

  • to draw (drew; drawn) a bead on sb. = to take aim at sb. – to point a gun at sb. before shooting: He drew a bead on the sniper.
  • aim – your ability to hit when shooting: He’s a great shooter, his aim is so good.

My brother’s rifle went off in my hand

  • to go off – to be fired: The gun went off while I was cleaning it.

A shot rang out across the land

  • to ring (rang; rung) out – to produce a loud clear sound: A single shot rang out.

The horse, he kept running, the rider was dead

I hung my head (2)

  • to hang (hung; hung) one’s head – to lower one’s head in shame or embarrassment: Don’t hand your head over this – it doesn’t really matter.

I set off running to wake from the dream

  • to set off – to start a journey, or to start going in a particular direction: Let’s set off early in the morning.

My brother’s rifle went into the stream

I kept on running into the Salt Lands

  • stream – a small narrow river: A path runs alongside the stream.
  • Salt Lands Salt Reservations (a place in Ohio)

And that’s where they found me, my head in my hands

  • my head in my hands – my face covered with my hands (the sign of being upset): They found me my head in my hands.

The sheriff, he asked me why had I run

Then it came to me just what I had done

  • it came to me – I understood: It came to me that it was such a silly thing to do.

And all for no reason, just one piece of lead

I hung my head (2)

  • lead /led/ – a chemical element used for making bullets (by one piece of lead the man means a bullet): The murderer filled the poor man full of lead (shot him with a lot of bullets)

Here in the courthouse, the whole town is there

I see the judge high up in his chair

“Explain to the courtroom what went through your mind

And we’ll ask the jury what verdict they find.”

  • courthouse – (American English) – court (British English): I am expected to appear at the courthouse.
  • jury – a group of people (ordinary members of the public), usually 12, who judge a court case: The fury have found him guilty of murdering the man.

I said, “I felt the power of death over life

I orphaned his children, I widowed his wife

I beg their forgiveness, I wish I was dead.”

I hung my head (4)

Early one morning with time to kill

I see the gallows up on the hill

  • to orphan sb. – to make a child an orphan ( child whose parents have died): He was orphaned at the age of 14.
  • to widow sb. – to make a woman a widow (a woman whose husband has died): She is widowed by the war.
  • gallows – a wooden frame used for killing criminals by hanging them from it with a rope around their neck: I hate gallows humor (humor about unpleasant or serious things such as death or disease)

And out in the distance, a trick of the brain

I see a lone rider crossing the plain

He’s come to fetch me to see what they done

  • a trick of the brain – (in this context) an illusion: It’s not real – just a trick of the brain.
  • to fetch sb. – to go to where someone is and bring them home: Can fetch the kids from school?

We’ll ride together till Kingdom come

  • till Kingdom come – a reference to the Kingdom of God in Christian eschatology; idiomatically, it means “for a long time” or “never” (it means “for a long time” in the context of the song)

I pray for God’s mercy for soon I’ll be dead

I hung my head…

  • for – (literary) because: I want to have a place of my own for I have always been a wanderer.

GRAMMAR IN THE SONG

The sheriff, he asked me why had I run

Then it came to me just what I had done

Note that the word order in the upper line should be different: “He asked me why I had run.” But the songwriter used a bit of artistic license, probably for rhyme’s sake (run – done).

We form the past perfect with had + past participle: I had done / I had run. When we talk about two things in the past, we use the past perfect for the earlier event; this is to make clear which action happened first.

I wish I was dead

The meaning of I wish + past simple is present, not past. We use the structure to say that we regret something, that something is not like we want it to be:

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The horse, he kept running / The sheriff, he asked me

Usually we don’t use two subjects in a sentence. It’s better to say “The sheriff asked me” or “He asked me.” But in songs grammar rules are sometimes violated “for art’s sake”. You can read about artistic license here.

Also, we don’t usually use “he” or “she” talking about animals, unless they are our pets and considered family members. However, especially in poetry, this “rule” is not always observed (another example: “Love is a bird, she needs to fly” (from “Frozen” by Madonna).