The history of North America over the past one to two hundred years is split into two distinct stories. The history of white people and the history of people of colour, mainly African Americans. Originally white people came to these shores as conquerors and African Americans came as slaves and well into the twentieth century each had their own version of American history. Whites had the American dream which promised them if they worked hard they would be a success and create a good life for themselves and their family. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the 20th century that African Americans even began dreaming of being treated as equals under the law in America, let alone having a comfortable life.
So in the the 1930s when ex-banker turned ethnomusicologist John Lomax talked about preserving the distinct African American culture that had grown up out of segregation he wasn’t being racist, he was just making an observation based on current societal conditions. He also knew there was little chance this culture would survive even the least amount of integration. If he wanted any chance of making an undiluted record of its music he’d have to go places where segregation was strictly enforced. As the prison populations were strictly segregated and the inmates were living in conditions similar to those they would have experienced as slaves, he thought prisons represented the best opportunities to record African American music in as pure a form as possible.
Judging by the collection of recordings being released under the title Jail House Bound – John Lomax’s First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 by Global Jukebox and West Virginia University Press, his assumption was correct. Using the primitive portable recording equipment available at the time Lomax went from prison to prison in the South, making recordings of the songs the African American prisoners used to sing while doing forced labour. In these songs you’ll hear the influences of everything from the tribal drums of their homelands, gospel, blues and the field songs slaves once used to help pass the time while picking their master’s crops.
It was during these recording sessions that Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbetter, more commonly known as Lead Belly, the man who wrote folk/blues staples “Goodnight, Irene”, “Rock Island Line” and “I Got Stripes”. While Lead Belly doesn’t appear on any of these recordings, nor is any of the material as polished as his work, you hear the roots of his songs in almost every track. Which, of course, was the point of these recordings after all. While titles like “The Midnight Special”, “John Henry” and “Grey Goose” have long since become popular, most of the material is nowhere near as widely known. There are some titles which might sound like they should be familiar, “Long Gone”, “That’s Alright Honey” and “Alabama Bound”, but they sound little or nothing like the songs which bear the same or similar names today.
For while quite a number of the songs included in this collection had previously been recorded as popular tunes or went on to become popular, what you hear on this record are versions that wouldn’t have been heard outside of the African American community. There are work songs where we can still hear the cadences and rhythms that were used to help coordinate the efforts of men working together. “Steel Laying Holler” used to be sung by men unloading heavy steel rails from flat cars and “Track Lining Song” was used to help in the lining or straightening out of railroad track.
Then there are songs like “Black Betty”, which some prisoners claimed referred to a whip used to punish them while others said it was the name given to the prison transfer truck, and “My Yellow Gal”, a song about a mixed-blood lover, whose lyrical content was specific to the people singing it. What white singer in the 1930s was going to sing about the beauty of their mixed race lover? How would anybody at that time who hasn’t been in jail know who Black Betty was? Most listening to the latter wouldn’t have an idea it wasn’t about some women who treated men badly.
Naturally the sound quality isn’t going to be what most are used to, but all things considered its of a higher quality than I expected. Some of the tracks are pretty scratchy and in places there is some distortion, but I was honestly surprised at how good a job Lomax was able to do with the equipment at his disposal. It does say in the accompanying booklet he wasn’t satisfied with some of his results and would occasionally make return visits to redo a recording if he thought he’d have a chance of improving on the original. Obviously those who have put this compilation together have sifted through who knows how many recordings and picked the best ones possible. However, they’re still on par with other field recordings I’ve heard that were made decades later using far more sophisticated equipment.
The thing is though, the roughness of the sound adds an air of authenticity to the recordings. It would be hard to believe they had been collected in prison farms in the 1930s if they were pristine. Anyway, the rawness of the end result seems somehow suited to the material recorded. The people singing weren’t necessarily trained vocalists or even musicians. They were inmates in prisons who had more enthusiasm and passion than skill. These were the songs they sang working on the chain gangs, picking crops and in the prison chapels for each other’s and their own comfort. Hearing them flaws and all makes both their music and their situation come alive. You really have the sense of being transported back in time and given the chance to observe a unique moment in history.
In an interview recorded with John Lomax that’s included in this collection, he talks about his intent behind making these recordings. While it’s hard not to be put off by his use of vernacular common to that era for referring to the subjects of his recordings, the very fact he went to the time and effort to make them is what you need to remember. Most white people at that time wouldn’t have considered anything African Americans, especially those in jail, produced worthy of their notice, let alone worth recording for posterity. In his own way, Lomax was also recognizing how America was divided along racial lines and how that resulted in a distinct culture for each race.
These recordings are fascinating listening because not only is the music great to listen to, they give us a glimpse into another era. The idea that African Americans might have had their own distinct culture in the 1930s would not have been something most of white America would have been willing to recognize. The music on these discs not only shows how strong and vital that culture was, it also makes it obvious how much that culture influenced, and continues to influence, American popular culture.