"The Story of Bonnie and Clyde"

Bonnie Parker's Role in Creating the Legend

Bonnie and Clyde Newspaper Headline
(Photo by Barry King/WireImage)

Bonnie and Clyde were legendary and historic outlaws who robbed banks and killed people. The authorities saw the couple as dangerous criminals, while the public viewed Bonnie and Clyde as modern-day Robin Hoods. The couple's legend was in part helped along by Bonnie's poems: "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde," and "The Story of Suicide Sal."

Bonnie Parker wrote the poems in the middle of their 1934 crime spree, while she and Clyde Barrow were on the run from the law.

This poem, "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde," was the second of the two, and the legend reports that Bonnie gave a copy of the poem to her mother just weeks before the couple was gunned down.

Bonnie and Clyde as Social Bandits

Parker's poem is part of a long-established outlaw-folk hero tradition, what historian Eric Hobsbawm called "social bandits." The social bandit/outlaw-hero is a people's champion who adheres to a higher law and defies the established authority of his time. The idea of a social bandit is a nearly universal social phenomenon found throughout history, and ballads and legends of them share a long set of characteristics.

The main feature shared by ballads and legends around such historical figures as Jesse James, Sam Bass, Billy the Kid, and Pretty Boy Floyd is the enormous amount of distortion of the known facts. That distortion enables the transition of a violent criminal into a folk hero.

In all cases, the story the people need to hear is more important than the facts--during the Depression, the public needed reassurance that there were people working against a government perceived as callous to their predicament. The voice of the Depression, American balladeer Woody Guthrie, wrote just such a ballad about Pretty Boy Floyd after Floyd was killed six months after Bonnie and Clyde died.

Curiously, many of the ballads, like Bonnie's, also use the metaphor of "the pen is mightier than the sword," stating that what newspapers have written about the bandit hero is false, but that the truth can be found written in their legends and ballads.

Twelve Characteristics of the Social Outlaw

American historian Richard Meyer identified 12 characteristics that are common to social outlaw stories. Not all of them appear in every story, but many of them come from older ancient legends—tricksters, champions of the oppressed, and ancient betrayals.

  1. The social bandit hero is a "man of the people" who stands in opposition to certain established, oppressive economic, civil, and legal systems. He is a "champion" who wouldn't harm the "little man."
  2. His first crime is brought about through extreme provocation by agents of the oppressive system.
  3. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor, serving as one who "rights wrongs." (Robin Hood, Zorro)
  4. Despite his reputation, he is good-natured, kind-hearted, and frequently pious.
  5. His criminal exploits are audacious and daring.
  6. He frequently outwits and confounds his opponents by trickery, often expressed humorously. (Trickster)
  7. He is helped, supported, and admired by his own people.
  1. The authorities can't catch him through conventional means.
  2. His death is only brought about by the betrayal by a former friend. (Judas)
  3. His death provokes great mourning on the part of his people.
  4. After he dies, the hero manages to "live on" in a number of ways: stories say that he is not really dead, or that his ghost or spirit continues to help and inspire people.
  5. His actions and deeds may not always gain approval or admiration, but rather are sometimes decried in the ballads as mildly stated criticism to outright condemnation and refutation of all the other 11 elements.

Bonnie Parker's Social Outlaw

True to the form, in "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde," Parker cements their image as social bandits. Clyde used to be "honest and upright and clean," and she reports that he was locked up unjustly.

The couple has supporters in the "regular people" like newsboys, and she foretells that "the law" will beat them in the end.

Like most of us, Parker had heard ballads and legends of lost heroes as a child. She even references Jesse James in the first stanza. What is interesting about her poems is that we see her actively spinning their criminal history into a legend.

The Story of Bonnie and Clyde

You've read the story of Jesse James
Of how he lived and died;
      If you're still in need
      Of something to read,
Here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang,
I'm sure you all have read
      How they rob and steal
      And those who squeal
Are usually found dying or dead.

There's lots of untruths to these write-ups;
They're not so ruthless as that;
      Their nature is raw;
      They hate all the law
The stool pigeons, spotters, and rats.

They call them cold-blooded killers;
They say they are heartless and mean;
      But I say this with pride,
      That I once knew Clyde
When he was honest and upright and clean.

But the laws fooled around,
Kept taking him down
And locking him up in a cell,
      Till he said to me,
      "I'll never be free,
So I'll meet a few of them in hell."

The road was so dimly lighted;
There were no highway signs to guide;
      But they made up their minds
      If all roads were blind,
They wouldn't give up till they died.

The road gets dimmer and dimmer;
Sometimes you can hardly see;
      But it's fight, man to man,
      And do all you can,
For they know they can never be free.

From heart-break some people have suffered;
From weariness some people have died;
      But take it all in all,
      Our troubles are small
Till we get like Bonnie and Clyde.

If a policeman is killed in Dallas,
And they have no clue or guide;
      If they can't find a fiend,
      They just wipe their slate clean
And hand it on Bonnie and Clyde.

There's two crimes committed in America
Not accredited to the Barrow mob;
      They had no hand
      In the kidnap demand,
Nor the Kansas City depot job.

A newsboy once said to his buddy;
"I wish old Clyde would get jumped;
      In these awful hard times
      We'd make a few dimes
If five or six cops would get bumped."

The police haven't got the report yet,
But Clyde called me up today;
      He said, "Don't start any fights
      We aren't working nights
We're joining the NRA."

From Irving to West Dallas viaduct
Is known as the Great Divide,
      Where the women are kin,
      And the men are men,
And they won't "stool" on Bonnie and Clyde.

If they try to act like citizens
And rent them a nice little flat,
      About the third night
      They're invited to fight
By a sub-gun's rat-tat-tat.

They don't think they're too tough or desperate,
They know that the law always wins;
      They've been shot at before,
      But they do not ignore
That death is the wages of sin.

Some day they'll go down together;
And they'll bury them side by side;
      To few it'll be grief
      To the law a relief
But it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.

— Bonnie Parker

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. ""The Story of Bonnie and Clyde"." ThoughtCo, Feb. 19, 2018, thoughtco.com/bonnie-parker-poem-bonnie-and-clyde-1779293. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2018, February 19). "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/bonnie-parker-poem-bonnie-and-clyde-1779293 Rosenberg, Jennifer. ""The Story of Bonnie and Clyde"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/bonnie-parker-poem-bonnie-and-clyde-1779293 (accessed April 27, 2018).