Sugar Land Recordings

Searching for authentic folk music, John A. Lomax made multiple trips to the Sugar Land area in the 1930s. First in 1933 and 1934, he and his son Alan visited the Central State correctional facility to document work songs of African American inmates. Then in 1939 he returned with wife Ruby Terrill Lomax and captured religious and traditional songs performed by a Mexican-American family.

The Lomaxes's visits to Central State -- once in 1933 and twice in 1934 -- resulted in the successful collection of more than 30 songs by African American inmates. In addition, the folklorists established relationships with two of their most prolific resources, James "Iron Head" Baker and Moses "Clear Rock" Platt.

Baker told the Lomaxes that he was a habitual offender who had been convicted six times. He explained that while at another prison he earned the nickname "Iron Head" when the branches of an oak tree fell on him and he just continued working. Baker had no serious conduct violations at Central and served as a trusty. In 1936, John appealed to Governor James Allred who granted Baker a furlough and "Iron Head" joined John on a tour of southern towns searching for worker songs at prisons, camps and docks. "Iron Head" received additional furloughs even after his travel with John ended, but he eventually returned to prison for committing burglaries.

Moses Platt, or "Mose" as the Lomaxes recorded his name, told John that he was nicknamed "Clear Rock" because he had thrown rocks at a group of men chasing him, apparently with such force and precision that three of the men were killed. During his time at Central State, "Clear Rock" shared ballads, works songs and several stories with the Lomaxes and later, after he was released, John and his wife Ruby located him in Taylor and recorded him in a room at the Blazilmar Hotel in 1939.

John and Ruby also returned to Central State in 1939, but Ruby wrote that the "trip was fruitless" because the "old crowd had scattered, the new boys sang fewer of the old songs and in performance imitated radio artists." They did not even set up the equipment.

During that trip, however, they did successfully record the Lopez family at their home not far from the prison. They had heard them perform an Easter play at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Houston, but their equipment was not working correctly so they made arrangements to visit them at their home near Sugar Land.

Gonzalo and Juana Lopez, several of their children, and other family members sang the story of Dimas, the Good Thief, who died with Jesus. They attributed the words and music to a teacher in Coahuila, Mexico, who taught it 50 years earlier to Lopez family members who shared it with future generations. Gonzalo also sang three traditional Mexican songs which the Lomaxes recorded in the Lopez's living room.

Images

James Baker

James Baker

James "Iron Head" Baker was photographed at Central State Farm during John A. and Alan Lomax's 1934 visit to record the singing of African American inmates. He told John he got the nickname "Iron Head" when part of a tree fell while he was incarcerated at another prison. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

"Iron Head" Baker

"Iron Head" Baker

Inmate James "Iron Head" Baker was serving as a trusty at Central State when John A. Lomax met him and secured a furlough for Baker to join him on a tour of southern prisons and communities. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Moses Platt

Moses Platt

Moses or "Mose" Platt, seen in this 1934 photo, was also known as "Clear Rock" and "Wyandotte." He was an inmate at Central State when John A. and Alan Lomax visited there in 1933 and in 1934. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Central State

Central State

Central State Prison: John A. Lomax made several visits to Central State Prison Farm to record the songs of inmates housed there, particularly in Unit 1. This photo from the early 1930s shows the Unit 2 complex. | Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Archives View File Details Page

Prison Conduct Record for James Baker

Prison Conduct Record for James Baker

Known as "Iron Head," James Baker was a self-acknowledged habitual offender. His prison conduct record shows that he was furloughed in 1936 by Governor James Allred to "report to Dr. John Lomax" in Austin. | Source: Texas Convict Records, 1875-1945, Ancestry.com View File Details Page

Prison Conduct Record for Moses Platt

Prison Conduct Record for Moses Platt

According to this prison record, Moses Platt was released from Central State in late 1934. John A. Lomax, who had first met him at Central in 1933, recorded him again in at a hotel in Taylor. | Source: Texas Convict Records, 1875-1945, Ancestry.com View File Details Page

Audio

Shorty George

The song "Shorty George" was about the short train that transported visitors, particularly visiting wives and girlfriends, from Houston to Central State. Inmate James "Iron Head" Baker initially did not want to sing it because it made him emotional. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress | Creator: View File Details Page

Black Betty

John A. Lomax recorded several versions of the prison work song "Black Betty," including this interpretation by James "Iron Head" Baker at Central State. In this version, "Black Betty" refers to the whip used to punish prisoners. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Barbara Allen

John A. and Alan Lomax recorded Moses "Clear Rock" Platt's version of the traditional ballad "Barbara Allen" at Central State in 1933. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

That's All Right Baby

Moses "Clear Rock" Platt sang "That's All Right Baby," a song John A. Lomax had never heard before, while he was an inmate at Central State. In 1933 and 1934, John and his son Alan recorded at least a dozens songs by Platt during their tours of southern prisons. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

La Vida del Bandido

When the Lomaxes visited their home near Central State, the Lopez family performed several songs, including "La Vida del Bandido," from an Easter play about Dimas, the "Good Thief" who was crucified with Jesus. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Yo Ya Me Voy

Gonzalo Lopez, a farmer and native of Mexico, told John A. and Ruby T. Lomax that he had courted his wife Juana with the song, "Yo Ya Me Voy," recorded by the Lomaxes in 1939. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amy Bertsch, “Sugar Land Recordings,” East Texas History, accessed June 25, 2017, http://easttexashistory.org/items/show/36.
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