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

Darrington Work Gang

Darrington Work Gang

This crew of convicts at Darrington, including Lightnin' Washington, cut wood as they sang for John A. and Alan Lomax in 1934. Ax-cutting is heard on several songs the Lomaxes recorded there. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Lightnin' Washington

Lightnin' Washington

Photographed at the Darrington infirmary in 1934, inmate Lightnin' Washington led a crew of convicts on work songs that the Lomaxes recorded when they visited the prison. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Darrington Inmate

Darrington Inmate

The Lomaxes photographed this unidentified Darrington inmate at the correctional facility's infirmary in 1934. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Darrington Map

Darrington Map

Seen on a 1943 topographical map, Darrington State Prison Farm had a prison cemetery and several buildings on the western edge of its property, just north of Sandy Point. | Source: Perry-Castaneda Map Collection, University of Texas View File Details Page

Catalog Entry for "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm"

Catalog Entry for "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm"

This catalog entry for "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm," recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax in 1934, has a notation indicating that the credited singer, Sin Killer Griffin, may not have been the actual lead vocalist. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 and 1934. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 the limitations of the recording equipment. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

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

Cite this Page:

Amy Bertsch, “Darrington Prison Recordings,” East Texas History, accessed June 25, 2017, http://easttexashistory.org/items/show/35.
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