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

Ramsey State Farm

Ramsey State Farm

This photograph shows the main building at Ramsey State Farm, likely constructed after the Lomaxes visited in 1939. | Creator: Courtesy Texas Department of Criminal Justice View File Details Page

Ramsey State Farm Camp No. 4

Ramsey State Farm Camp No. 4

When John A. and Ruby T. Lomax visited the Ramsey State Prison Farm in 1939, they recorded inmates at Camp No. 4, seen in this image. | Creator: Courtesy Texas Prison Museum and Brazoria County Historical Museum View File Details Page

Prison Conduct Record for Wallace Chain

Prison Conduct Record for Wallace Chain

Although the Lomaxes recorded his name as Wallace Chains, this inmate record and his death certificate list his last name as Chain. This conduct record also shows that he was given "24 Hrs on Barrell for Using Profane language," a form of punishment the Lomaxes had seen another inmate disciplined with during their Ramsey visit. | Creator: Courtesy Texas Convict Records, 1875-1945, Ancestry.com View File Details Page

Prison Conduct Record for Alexander Hamilton

Prison Conduct Record for Alexander Hamilton

The Lomaxes noted that some Ramsey inmates had the same names as historically significant men, including Alexander Hamilton whose prison conduct record is seen here. | Creator: Courtesy Texas Convict Records, 1875-1945, Ancestry.com View File Details Page

Columbus Christopher Letter

Columbus Christopher Letter

After the Lomaxes left Ramsey, inmate Columbus Christopher sent this letter to John, appealing for his help in obtaining an early release. | Creator: Courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Columbus Christopher Letter, Page 2

Columbus Christopher Letter, Page 2

In the second page of his letter to John A. Lomax, inmate Columbus Christopher encouraged him to return to Ramsey where he and "the Boys" had prepared more songs. | Creator: Courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 Blues," a prison work song. | Creator: Courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

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 View File Details Page

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 Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amy Bertsch, “Ramsey Prison Recordings,” East Texas History, accessed June 25, 2017, http://easttexashistory.org/items/show/38.
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