Huntsville Prison Recordings

Folklorist John Avery Lomax toured prisons in the South to record the voices and music of those who were incarcerated there, particularly African American inmates or as his records indicate, "Negro convicts." Lomax and his son Alan, a student at the University of Texas who assisted him, visited the men's prison at Huntsville several times in the early 1930s.

Though Huntsville officials refused his request to record inmates during his first visit in 1933, he eventually received approval and returned that December with the blessing of Lee Simmons, the Texas Prison System's general manager who also wrote a letter of introduction to aid the team in gaining access to other prisons. Over the next year, the Lomaxes returned multiple times, recording at least 50 vocal and instrumental performances at Huntsville's historic Walls Unit.

Inmates, some with colorful names like Tricky Sam, Track Horse, and Little Brother, sang the blues, spirituals and works songs, and played harmonica instrumentals. Several singers were accompanied by guitar and others by the beat of ax cutting, a typical prison labor job in which inmates worked as a team to complete a task.

Not all inmates were identified by name, and the Lomaxes identified some simply as a "group of Negro convicts." Of those who were identified, at least one, V.R. Parker, was listed in prison records as a "musician." Another, Percy Ridge, was serving a sentence for assault. He was released just a month after he performed "Western Cowboy," but was shot to death in his hometown of Dallas two years later.

With the assistance of Olaf J.S. Ellingson who succeeded Simmons as manager of the prison system, John Lomax returned to Huntsville in May 1939, assisted by his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax. By this time, inmates had their own radio show, "Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls" on WBAP, and the Lomaxes consulted with the program's director before recording. William Longino, a professor at Sam Houston State Teachers College, assisted the Lomaxes at the prison. The team recorded at least nine performances including two instrumentals by inmate Pop Warner on fiddle and an imitation of a cat and dog fighting by convicted armed robber Lawrence Evans who later died in prison.

During this 1939 visit, the Lomaxes also recorded at Professor William Longino's home in Huntsville and at the nearby Goree State Prison for women.

Images

Audio

Up and Down Buildin' the K.C. Line
In 1934, an inmate at the Huntsville Unit identified as Little Brother recorded "Up and Down Buildin' the K.C. Line" for John A. and Alan Lomax. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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Long Freight Train Blues
Two prison inmates, Richard L. Lewis on vocals and Wilbert Gilliam on guitar, performed "Long Freight Train Blues" for John A. Lomax's recording session at Huntsville in 1939. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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Western Cowboy
A month before he was released, Huntsville inmate Percy Ridge, originally from Dallas, recorded "Western Cowboy" for John A. and Alan Lomax in 1934. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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Cat and Dog Fight
Huntsville inmate Lawrence Evans recorded this imitation of a cat and dog fighting for John A. Lomax's session in 1939. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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