Jail House Bound: John Lomax’s First Southern Prison Recordings, 1933
Global Jukebox / West Virginia University Press
If you’re looking for the very dirt beneath the roots of rock and roll, this is it. John Lomax was one of the first ethnologists to take a recorder out into the wilds and catch “real folks” singing “real music.” Mr. Lomax has a particular interest in black music and may have been inspired by the Federal project to collect slave stories during the depression. His recording technology was crude; he used a hand-wound Dictaphone with wax cylinders, and later a much noisier “improved” electronic system. All this junk weighed 400 pounds and just barely fit in his Ford automobile. In prison camps throughout the South he captured the songs of black men who relied on the songs to help them though their brutal jobs. These were direct descendents of slaves and had tripped up against the white man’s society and now were pretty much back where the grandparents were, working from “Can to Can’t” for no money, crappy food, and no chance of doing much of anything else.
On these cylinders are the songs that influenced Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, and while you can hear the bones of “Midnight Special,” it doesn’t sound a thing like Wolfman Jack’s theme. Another tune you may recognize is “Black Betty.” There are plenty of versions and explanations of the lyrics, but here she’s just a slave girl bearing a child with suspiciously light skin. In the final chorus, they sing “it must have been the captain’s.”
The vocals here are amazingly good, but the sound quality is at best yard-sale 78s, and some of the tracks are so noisy you can barely hear them. The collection includes a nice booklet discussing the prisons and the singers and the trouble Lomax took to get these recordings. Not all the prisoners were great singers, but when he found them at Angola or Statesville, he stuck around and harvested his rare treasures. In an interview, Lomax declares he’s out to find “nigra’s” that had had the least possible contact with whites and the least possible influence from modern society. He found them all right; some of these prisoners had been locked up since the 1880s. I can’t recommend this for casual listening, but it’s essential for the musicologist or songwriter.