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

Goree Dormitory

Goree Dormitory

In the 1930s, John A. Lomax twice visited Goree, a women's penitentiary located at 7405 State Highway 75, to record inmates singing gospel, blues and other songs. Hattie Ellis, Doris McMurray and other women he recorded during his 1939 visit may have lived in the Main Dormitory, seen here, constructed two years earlier. | Source: "Times and Places" collection, Huntsville Public Library, WalkerCountyTreasures.com View File Details Page

Goree State Farm

Goree State Farm

Opened as a women's prison in 1911, the Goree State Farm, seen in this 1938 photo, had separate facilities for African American and white inmates. White and Hispanic inmates worked in a garment factory and African American inmates worked in farming operations. | Source: Texas Prison Museum View File Details Page

Mr. and Mrs. Heath

Mr. and Mrs. Heath

Marcus V. Heath, seen in this undated photo with his wife Clyde Oree Heath, was Goree's general manager. Known as "Captain" Heath, he may have been the inspiration for a prison song inmates performed for John A. Lomax in 1939. | Source: Texas Prison Museum View File Details Page

Prison Conduct Record for Hattie Ellis

Prison Conduct Record for Hattie Ellis

Goree inmate Hattie Ellis performed several songs recorded by John A. and Ruby T. Lomax in 1939. This record shows that although Ellis was paroled in 1940, she later returned to Goree for violating the terms of her parole. | Source: Texas Convict Records, 1875-1945, Ancestry.com View File Details Page

Prison Conduct Record for Jack Ramsey

Prison Conduct Record for Jack Ramsey

A white inmate at the men's prison in Huntsville, "Cowboy" Jack Ramsey played guitar on two songs the Lomax team recorded with African American female inmates at Goree in 1939. | Source: Texas Convict Records, 1875-1945, Ancestry.com View File Details Page

Catalog Entry for Goree Recording

Catalog Entry for Goree Recording

This catalog entry for a 1934 recording at the Goree prison identifies the performers only as a "group of Negro women prisoners" so their true identifies are unknown. This catalog entry is part of the Lomax collections at the Library of Congress. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

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. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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. Lomax's 1939 recording tour. The song may have been inspired by the prison's general manager and his rules for inmate conduct. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 Congress View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amy Bertsch, “Goree Recordings,” East Texas History, accessed June 25, 2017, http://easttexashistory.org/items/show/20.
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