Ramsey Prison Recordings

In April 1939, John A. Lomax and his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax visited Ramsey State Prison Farm near Otey with the hope of documenting more songs by African American prisoners after disappointing visits to Darrington and Central State where inmates sang very few "old songs." At Ramsey's Camp No. 4, a facility where the Lomaxes noted the "habituals and incorrigibles" were housed, they recorded in a small office. From there, they could see into a dormitory room and observed that "Negro convicts were playing cards, reading, talking, singing blues, listening to an exhorter, sleeping." They also saw one inmate standing "on a barrel for punishment for some minor violation of rules."

The inmates they met included "Columbus Christopher, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington," who sang under the supervision of guards and "behind three sets of locks." They also encountered James "Iron Head" Baker who after being paroled from Central State was again incarcerated for burglary. Having once traveled with John Lomax on an extended furlough, Baker knew the type of music the Lomaxes were seeking and directed his fellow inmates at Ramsey not to sing popular songs. This guidance likely helped the Lomaxes collect the authentic style of singing that they had been unable to find at Darrington and Central State.

The Lomaxes recorded 11 songs at Ramsey including spirituals, work songs and blues performances by individual inmates and groups. Inmate Wallace S. Chain, one of several prisoners John had met over the years using the nickname "Stavin' Chain," provided guitar accompaniment on several songs, and Baker recorded three songs in what appears to be his last session and perhaps his last contact with John Lomax.

After the Lomaxes left Ramsey, inmate Columbus Christopher sent a letter to John, appealing for his assistance. Addressing the letter to "Mr. John A. Low. Mack," he wrote, "If you will get me out I will work for you" or "any of your peoples." In an attempt to encourage John's return, he added that he and other inmates had been practicing religious songs and would have a "greath (sic) number of songs" ready for the Lomaxes. John and Ruby did not return, and Christopher was released the following year.

Images

Audio

Smoky Mountain Blues
Sylvester Jones performed the vocals on "Smoky Mountain Blues," accompanied on guitar by Wallace Chain, or Chains as the Lomaxes documented his last name. ~ Creator: Courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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Till I Die
A group of six Ramsey inmates sang the religious song "Till I Die" during John A. and Ruby T. Lomax's visit in 1939. ~ Creator: Courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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Worry Blues
Ramsey inmates Brant Bolden, Wade "Monkey" Bolden, Wallace "Stavin Chain" Chain, Columbus Christopher, W.S. "Jay Bird" Harrison, and Sylvester "Texas Stavin' Chains" Jones performed "Worry...
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Jesus Walk Round Your Bedside
The only song the Lomaxes recorded by Ramsey inmate Alexander Hamilton was the spiritual "Jesus Walk Round Your Bedside." ~ Creator: Courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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This Heart o' Mine
James "Iron Head" Baker, who had first met John A. Lomax in 1933, was once again incarcerated when he performed the religious song "This Heart o' Mine" for the Lomaxes at Ramsey in 1939. ~ Creator: Courtesy American Folklife...
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