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.