Goree Recordings

In his pursuit of folk music, John A. Lomax visited penitentiaries throughout the South specifically to document the music of African Americans that, because of racial segregation and the isolation of prison life, remained pure or relativity free of the influence of whites or popular music. In 1934, Lomax and his son Alan visited the Goree State Farm, the state prison for women just outside Huntsville, and recorded four songs by a "group of Negro women prisoners."

John returned to Goree in 1939, this time joined by his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax on their Southern States Recording Trip. There they recorded several female inmates, some in groups and others singing individually. One of the soloists, Hattie Ellis, had gained a following after appearing on WBAP's weekly radio show, "Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls," which featured inmates performing from the nearby men's prison known as the Walls Unit. According to Marcus V. Heath, Goree's general manager, Ellis once received 3,000 fan letters in one week because of her performances on WBAP.

Ellis, a native Texan in her mid-20s serving a 30-year sentence for murder, was accompanied on guitar by "Cowboy" Jack Ramsey, a white inmate, when she performed a bluesy version of "I Ain't Got Nobody" and on "Desert Blues," which she told the Lomax team that she had written.

Doris McMurray, another soloist, sang "Shine On" and "This Little o' Mine," two songs that she had learned from her grandmother in Waco. McMurray and Ellis joined other inmate vocalists on the spiritual "It's a Blessin' Jes' to Call My Savior's Name" and on the prison song "Cap'n Don't 'low No Truckin' -round in Here." Decades later, a writer for "Texas Monthly" magazine wondered if Ellis might also have written that song about "Captain" Heath, Goree's strict manager whose wife served as the prison matron.

At the time, the Lomaxes noted that "Hattie's singing is fast becoming 'throaty' as she strives to imitate the professional 'blues' singers." The next year Ellis received a conditional parole, but was returned to prison in 1955 for assaulting someone in New York, a violation of her parole.

Images

Audio

Desert Blues
Inmate Hattie Ellis recorded "Desert Blues" at the Goree Farm and "Cowboy" Jack Ramsey, a white inmate from the nearby Walls Unit in Huntsville, accompanied her on guitar for John A. Lomax's recording session in 1939. ~...
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I Ain't Got Nobody
Goree inmate Hattie Ellis offered her blues adaptation of "I Ain't Got Nobody" for John A. and Ruby T. Lomax's 1939 recording session at the women's prison. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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This Little Light o' Mine
Inmate Doris McMurray recorded "This Little Light o' Mine," a song she had learned from her grandmother, during John A. and Ruby T. Lomax's visit to Goree in 1939. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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Shine On
During John A. and Ruby T. Lomax's visit to the Goree prison in 1939, inmate Doris McMurray sang "Shine On," one of her two solo performances they recorded. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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Cap'n Don't 'low No Truckin'-round in Here
Seven Goree inmates -- Doris McMurray, Hattie Ellis, Jimmie Lee Hart, Gene Raymond, Ella May Fitzpatrick, Lavena Austin and Mozelle Stewart -- sang "Cap'n Don't 'low No Truckin'-round in Here" for John A. and Ruby T....
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My Lord, What a Morning
Goree inmates Doris McMurray and Ella May Fitzpatrick sang the spiritual "My Lord, What a Morning" for the Lomaxes' 1939 recording session. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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It's a Blessin' Jes' to Call My Savior's Name
Seven women incarcerated at Goree sang the spiritual "It's a Blessin' Jes' to Call My Savior's Name" for John A. Lomax's Southern States Recording Trip in in 1939. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of...
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