ARTIST
SONG
ALBUM
J.B. Smith & Group Sure Makes A Man Feel BadI'm Troubled With A Diamond: Texas Prison Songs Vol. 1
Joseph 'Chinaman' Johnson & GroupDrop 'em DownOld Rattler Can't Hold Me: Texas Prison Songs Vol. 2
Houston Paige & GroupDown The LineOld Rattler Can't Hold Me: Texas Prison Songs Vol. 2
J.B. Smith Poor Boy Old Rattler Can't Hold Me: Texas Prison Songs Vol. 2
Johnny Jackson & Group Yellow GalI'm Troubled With A Diamond: Texas Prison Songs Vol. 1
Johnny Johnson & GroupIn The BottomWake Up Dead Man
Benny Richardson & GroupGrizzly Bear Wake Up Dead Man
Eugene Rhodes If She's Your WomanTalkin' About My Time
Eugene Rhodes Whosoever Will, Let Him ComeTalkin' About My Time
Eugene Rhodes Talkin' About My TimeTalkin' About My Time
Eugene Rhodes Don't Talk Me to DeathTalkin' About My Time
J.B. SmithI Got Too Much Time For the Crime I DoneEver Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown
Babe Stovall The Ship Is At The Landing Sorrow Come Pass Me Around
Robert “Nighthawk” JohnsonCan't No GraveSorrow Come Pass Me Around
Willard Artis “Blind Pete” Burrell Do Lord Remember Me Sorrow Come Pass Me Around
Chester Davis/Compton Jones/Furry LewisGlory Glory HallelujahSorrow Come Pass Me Around
Willie Menifee & Mance Lipscomb If I Get Lucky MamaRuff Stuff: The Roots Of Texas Blues Guitar
T.J. Jackson Out And DownRuff Stuff: The Roots Of Texas Blues Guitar
Mance Lipscomb Papa Lightfoot Angel Child Ruff Stuff: The Roots Of Texas Blues Guitar
Nathaniel “Bill” Barnes Jack Of Diamonds Is A Hard Card To PlayRuff Stuff: The Roots Of Texas Blues Guitar
Babe Stovall Worried Blues Ruff Stuff: The Roots Of Texas Blues Guitar
Grey Ghost Lonesome Traveler Grey Ghost
Grey Ghost A Good Gal Is Hard To FindGrey Ghost
Grey Ghost Hold That Train, Conductor Grey Ghost

Show Notes:

J.B. Smith: Ever Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown
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On today's show we spotlight some remarkable field recordings from the 1960's and 70's. During the first hour we play recordings made in Texas prisons in the 60's by scholar Bruce Jackson. Jackson is a professor in the University of Buffalo's Department of English and has written or edited more than 30 books in the fields of folklore, ethnography, sociology and photography. Several collections of his field recordings have been issued although the bulk are long out-of-print. In the second hour we feature selections from the albums Sorrow Come Pass Me Around, Ruff Stuff: The Roots Of Texas Blues Guitar and a collection of recordings made by pianist the Grey Ghost. Sorrow Come Pass Me Around is a collection of spiritual and gospel songs recorded between 1965-1973 by David Evans performed by active or former blues artists. Ruff Stuff: The Roots Of Texas Blues Guitar is a collection of Texas field recordings capture by Tary Owens. Owens also recorded the Grey Ghost in 1965, eventually issuing these recordings in the 1980's.

Bruce Jackson wrote: “I started recording in Texas prisons in July 1964. I think Texas had about 12,000 prisoners in 14 prisons back then …My primary interest in Texas was the black convict worksongs, which seemed to me to be part of an unbroken musical tradition going back to West Africa….Black convicts in Texas mostly called them 'river songs,' not 'worksongs.' That’s because all of the plantation prisons in Texas used to be located on the Brazos River or the Trinity River. Since I was interested in worksongs and since that tradition was already on the wane, I concentrated on prisons for long-term convicts and multiple recidivists, prisons populated by men who had been in for a long time or who had been in several times previously. I started out on the Ramsey farm, southwest of Houston, and visited Retrieve and Sugarland which aren’t far from the Ramsey. I also worked on Eastham, the Walls (the only prison in Texas with a wall around it), Wynne (at that time, a prison for physically infirm and geriatric inmates) and Ellis, all of them in or near Huntsville, which is 70 miles north of Houston. …The large plantations in the U.S. South were based on West African agricultural models and, with one major difference, the black slaves used worksongs in the plantations exactly as they had used them before they had been taken prisoner and sold to the white men. The difference was this: in Africa the songs were used to time body movements and to give poetic voice to things of interest because people wanted to do their work that way; in the plantations there was added a component of survival. If a man were singled out as working too slowly, he would often be brutally punished. The songs kept everyone together, so no one could be singled out as working more slowly than everyone else.”

Wake Up Dead Man
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J.B. Smith was recorded by Jackson in 1965 at Texas’s Ramsey Prison Farm. From the liner notes: "Smitty – J.B. Smith – is eleven years into a forty-five year sentence that begun in 1954; he is 48 years old. This is his fourth time in prison in Texas and he does not expect to be paroled for some time.” Jackson wrote in his  book Wake Up Dead Man that, when he met him, Smith had already been in prison three times on burglary and robbery by assault charges. At the time of the recording, he was back in for the murder of his girlfriend, an act Smith recalled being born of “insane jealousy mixed up with love “So many of us do that,” he told Jackson, referring to his crime. “Lot of fellas in here today on those same terms.” The murder, according to Jackson, brought Smith back to Ramsey with “a forty-five-year sentence, which, because of his age, looked pretty much like life.” Jackson did continue, parenthetically: “He was paroled in 1967, lived in Amarillo for a while and did some preaching. I heard recently (1972) that he’d returned to prison for a parole violation.”

J.B. Smith noted that “the oldtimers still sing. That is, if whoever is carrying (in charge of) the squad will let them. In some cases the boss won’t let them sing. …The young men don’t get a chance to work with the older men and they haven’t experienced working with older men. A lot of them have never been in the system before. And the crews they work with don’t even know the songs, the worksongs that they work by. But once they get to working with the older men, they learn the songs and they try to carry them on when they can. But like I said, in most cases they can’t because they’re not permitted."

Jackson recorded an entire album devoted to smith titled Ever Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown issued on Takoma in 1965. As far as I know this is the only LP devoted to a single unaccompanied singer of prison worksong. As Jackson wrote: “He had been a member of groups doing work songs I had recorded at Ramsey during the summers of 1964 and 1965, when I returned in November 1965 he offered to tap some of the songs when he was working alone picking cotton or cutting sugarcane. He knows all the group songs and their melodies – he used to sing lead back in the days when he was younger and worked lead hoe…” Other songs by Smith appear on the anthologies I'm Troubled With A Diamond: Texas Prison Songs Vol. 1 and Old Rattler Can't Hold Me: Texas Prison Songs Vol. 2. In addition to Smith, we spotlight several tracks from the latter collections; both of these were cassette only releases issued in 1990 with only 250 copies of each produced. We also spin two tracks from Wake Up Dead Man the companion to the book – "making it in Hell", says Bruce Jackson, is the spirit behind the sixty-five work songs gathered in this remarkable book.

Today we feature selections from all those albums that were issued of Bruce Jackson's recording except for one omission. I left off Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons (Elektra, 1965) which I did not locate until the show was already assembled. I will feature this on another field recording show at some point.

Sorrow Come Pass Me Around
Read Liner Notes (PDF)

Jackson also recorded Eugene Rhodes who was doing a ten- to 25-year stretch at the Indiana State Prison, which was where the album Talkin' About My Time was recorded, 15 songs and a little talking that was eventually released on the Folk-Legacy label in 1963. In the '20s and '30s, Rhodes had traveled through the south as a one-man band, including a harmonica rack with a special mount on the side for a horn, a foot pedal powered drum, and of course, a guitar. He reportedly played in the Dallas area, where he claims to have met Blind Lemon Jefferson. He also crossed paths with Blind Boy Fuller in the Carolinas and Buddy Moss in Georgia.

At some point by the end of the year I plan to devote a show to the field recordings of David Evans. Today we spotlight Sorrow Come Pass Me Around a beautiful collection of spiritual and gospel songs performed in informal non-church settings between 1965-1973. Most are guitar-accompanied and performed by active or former blues artists. The songs were recorded between 1965 and 1973 . Evans writes: “Most records of black religious music contain some form of gospel singing or congregational singing recorded at a church service. This album, though, tries to present a broader range of performance styles and contexts with the hope of showing the important role that religious music plays in the Southern black communities and in the daily lives of individuals.” The album was originally issued on Advent in 1975 and has just been reissued on vinyl on the Dust-To-Digital label.

Our show concludes with recordings made by Tary Owens. Shortly after the death of folklorist Tary Owens on September 21, 2003, Brad Buchholz, wrote that, “Tary Owens devoted most of his life to music, though only rarely to his own. The greater mission, to Owens, was to champion the music of forgotten or unsung Texas bluesmen—to put their songs on records, to place them on a stage, to encourage a larger public to celebrate their artistry.” Funded by a Lomax Foundation grant in the 1960's, Owens traveled around Texas recording a variety of folk musicians, including guitarists Mance Lipscomb, Freddie King, and Bill Neely, as well as barrelhouse piano players Robert Shaw and Roosevelt T. Williams, also known as the “Grey Ghost.” Owens remained involved in the lives of these musicians for the next several decades and, in some cases, was largely responsible for helping rescue them from obscurity and resurrect their professional careers.

Owens wrote:  "In 1962 and 1963 while a graduate student at Indiana University, I did some folklore and sociology research in prisons in Missouri and Indiana. I decided it might be interesting a southern prison system to see what had happened to the various traditions documented by John A. and Alan Lomax and Herbert Halpert in the 1930's." In the sixties Jackson received a four-year fellowship to Harvard Society of Fellows that gave him “the resources to work anywhere I wanted; that’s when I started working in Texas, mostly recording music and then looking at the prison cultural scene.”

Ruff Stuff: The Roots Of Texas Blues Guitar
Read Liner Notes (PDF)

From an article in National Geographic magazine: "He says he got the name Grey Ghost back when he was hired to play in various small towns. Someone would meet every arriving train or bus, but Williams was never aboard–yet mysteriously he would show up in time to perform. 'They said like a ghost I come up out of the ground, and then I was gone," he grinned. "I had come and gone by freight train. I would put overalls over my suit and tie, and that's the way I traveled.'" Williams was born in Bastrop, Texas and received only basic musical training when he was a teenager. He traveled to the area dances and roadhouses by riding empty boxcars. In 1940, author William A. Owens made a live recording of Williams singing "Hitler Blues," a song written by Williams. The song received mention in Time and was broadcast by BBC Radio on a program hosted by Alistair Cooke in 1940 about the American musical response to World War II. There's an entire chapter devoted to Grey Ghost in Owens's third volume of autobiography Tell Me A Story, Sing Me A Song; A Texas Chronicle. In 1965 Owens recorded several Grey Ghost songs. After decades of relative obscurity, Owens tracked down Grey Ghost again in the mid-1980s. Williams was long retired, but Owens not only issued the 1965 recordings on his Catfish Records label in 1987, but also convinced Williams, now 84, to start playing again and introduced him to a new generation of blues fans. Owens arranged for Williams to make a CD of new recordings at the age of 89. which was released in 1992 on Owens' Spindletop label. The City of Austin proclaimed December 7, 1987, as Grey Ghost Day, and he was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 1988. Williams performed regularly until the time of his death in Austin at the age of 92 in 1996.

Related Material:

-Tary Owens, Texas Folklorist and Musician A Life Remembered by Ruth K. Sullivan (Austin-American Statesman, March, 2000) [PDF]

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