Darrington Prison Recordings

In 1933 and 1934, folklorist John A. Lomax and his son Alan visited the Darrington prison farm to record the music of African American convicts. At Darrington, they captured not only the vocals of inmates who sang as they worked in rhythm, but also the powerful words of the prison chaplain as he delivered a sermon.

The Lomaxes recorded a prisoner identified as Lightnin' Washington, so named by his fellow inmates because he could "think faster than the Warden." Washington was under 30 and serving a second prison term. He led other convicts in several work songs, including "Good God Almighty," "Hammer Ring," and "Long John" in which members of the group kept time with ax-cutting and clapping. They also joined him by singing and humming on "God Moves on the Water," a song that recalled the Titanic disaster in 1912.

During their visit in spring 1934, the Lomaxes recorded Reverend John L. Griffin, known as "Sin Killer" Griffin, who served as a chaplain to African American inmates in the Texas prison system. Lomax explained to Sin Killer, who had attracted both blacks and whites to Baptist revivals in the late 19th century, that the recordings they made would be deposited in the Library of Congress and a "thousand years from now people can listen to words you will preach."

Griffin delivered his "Man of Calvary" sermon as part of the Easter service he held for Darrington's inmates. Those in attendance were offered bread crumbs and grapefruit juice from the commissary for communion. Griffin's sermon lasted an hour, but the Lomaxes were unable to record it in full as the disks they used only held seven minutes of sound per side and had to be turned and changed frequently. They did record the congregation singing "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm" about the hurricane that decimated Galveston more than 30 years earlier. Though Griffin is credited in most records as the singer, it is likely that the prison's unnamed songleader was actually the featured vocalist.

In 1939, John returned to Darrington with his wife Ruby T. Lomax but found that the inmates did not offer the same type of authentic music he had found earlier. Instead, Ruby noted, there were few singers and those willing to perform were "not interested in old songs or the old manner of singing."

Images

Audio

God Moves on the Water
Lightnin' Washington led other Darrington inmates on "God Moves on the Water," a song about the Titanic disaster and recorded by the Lomaxes in 1933. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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Good God Almighty
The rhythmic sound of axes striking wood are clearly heard in "Good God Almighty," a work song performed by Darrington inmate Lightnin' Washington and other convicts. The Lomaxes recorded several prison work songs at Darrington in 1933...
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Long John
Darrington inmate Lightnin' Washington led other inmates as they performed "Long John," a prison work song recorded by the Lomaxes in 1933. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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The Man of Calvary
Serving as a prison chaplain to Darrington's African American convicts, Reverend "Sin Killer" Griffin delivered his sermon, "The Man of Calvary," for Easter. Alan Lomax recorded much of the hour-long sermon but not all due to...
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Wasn't That a Mighty Storm
The Lomaxes recorded "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm" during Reverend "Sin Killer" Griffin's Easter service for inmates at Darrington in 1934. The song recalls the devastation Galveston suffered in the 1900 hurricane. ~...
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