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

Old Huntsville Prison Administration Building

Old Huntsville Prison Administration Building

Folklorist John A. Lomax visited the Huntsville Unit of the Texas State Penitentiary several times in the 1930s to record inmates singing and playing musical instruments. A red brick structure replaced this building in the early 1940s. | Source: E.C. Kropp Co. View File Details Page

Prison Conduct Record for Augustus Haggerty

Prison Conduct Record for Augustus Haggerty

Augustus Haggerty, or "Track Horse" as he was known, sang more than 20 songs recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax in 1933 and 1934 at the Huntsville prison. | Source: Texas Convict Records, 1875-1945, Ancestry.com View File Details Page

Prison Conduct Record for Jesse Bradley

Prison Conduct Record for Jesse Bradley

Huntsville inmate Jesse Bradley performed five songs recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax in 1934. | Source: Texas Convict Records, 1875-1945, Ancestry.com View File Details Page

Catalog Entry for Ax Cutting Recording

Catalog Entry for Ax Cutting Recording

This catalog entry indicates Huntsville inmates sang and used chopping axes as they performed for John A. and Alan Lomax in 1934. Prisoners used work songs to keep time as they did physical labor like ax cutting. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Catalog Entry for Recording by Tricky Sam

Catalog Entry for Recording by Tricky Sam

This catalog entry for a 1934 recording by an inmate at the Huntsville prison known only as Tricky Sam is one of hundreds that WPA workers produced for John A. Lomax's collections of secular music as part of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, today known as the American Folklife Center. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Radio Show Souvenir Program

Radio Show Souvenir Program

Inmates at the prison in Huntsville performed on the WBAP radio music show "Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls." This souvenir program for that show features the old prison administration building on its cover. | Source: Texas Prison Museum View File Details Page

Bird's Eye View

Bird's Eye View

This view from above of the Walls Unit, taken around 1938, shows what the prison in Huntsville looked like when the Lomaxes visited to record inmates who were housed there. | Source: Texas Prison Museum View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amy Bertsch, “Huntsville Prison Recordings,” East Texas History, accessed June 25, 2017, http://easttexashistory.org/items/show/11.
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