Clemens Prison Recordings

During his Southern States Recording Trip in 1939, folklorist John A. Lomax sought out songs by African American performers and inmates. Accompanied by his wife, Ruby Terrill Lomax, John visited Clemens State Prison Farm in mid-April 1939. The couple stayed at the Varner-Hogg Plantation in West Columbia and drove about 15 miles to Clemens, first to set up a meeting, and then to record the following day.

Some of the inmates there, including musicians Ace Johnson and Smith Casey, had appeared on the weekly radio show "Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls," which featured musical performances broadcast from the prison in Huntsville. Johnson was a popular harmonica and guitar player and Casey, listed as Smith Cason in the Lomaxes's notes, was a guitarist who had worked as a musician before his arrest for murder.

On recording day, John explained the types of music he was looking for, and according to Ruby, "musicians and singers volunteered or were pushed forward by their companions." They recorded for approximately three hours, taking a break for lunch. In all, they collected more than two dozen songs, including blues, spirituals, work songs and field hollers typical of what they had found at other prisons. But the Clemens inmates also performed several instrumentals, as well as a disaster ballad and a funeral song. These contributions resulted in a collection with a much greater variety than the Lomaxes had found at other East Texas prisons.

In addition to Casey and Johnson, inmate L.W. Gooden played guitar, and the three combined to play on at least 15 songs. Johnson also showcased his harmonica work on "Train" and "Rabbit in the Garden." The Clemens session included several blues performances like "Worry Blues," "Hesitating Blues," "Mournful Blues," "West Texas Blues," "Santa Fe Blues" and "Grey Horse Blues," and at least two songs, "East Texas Rag" and "Clemens Rag," that appear to have been locally inspired.

Three years after this session, John Lomax's son, Alan, working for the Library of Congress, wrote to a Clemens official in an attempt to locate Casey. Alan explained that the Library planned to "release his record and pay him for his services." Alan apparently found Casey, as he wrote to him a month later, explaining that the performer would receive $7.50 and two copies of the record for the use of the blues piece "Shorty George." Casey was granted a conditional pardon in 1945 and died of tuberculosis five years later.



Clemens Rag
Inmates Ace Johnson and L.W. Gooden both played guitar on "Clemens Rag," an instrumental performance recorded by the Lomaxes in 1939. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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The disaster ballad "Influenza" recalls the 1929 flu outbreak in Memphis. Inmate Ace Johnson, who sang and played guitar on this rendition, told the Lomaxes that he had learned the song from "a holiness boy in Amarillo." ~ Source:...
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Hammer Song
The Lomaxes did not identify the inmates who performed "Hammer Song" by name but credited the performance to a "group of Negro convicts." They did note that the work song was "for rock-breaking or ax-cutting." ~ Source:...
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Inmate Ace Johnson, who had performed on the radio show "Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls," played a harmonica to imitate the sounds of a train on this recording. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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East Texas Rag
Clemens State inmate Smith Casey, identified by the Lomaxes as Smith Cason, performed "East Texas Rag" on guitar. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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Rabbit in the Garden
Clemens State inmate Ace Johnson combined his harmonica skills and vocals to perform "Rabbit in the Garden," a song he had previously presented on the radio show "Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls." ~ Source: American Folklife...
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Two White Horses Standin' in Line
Smith Casey was serving time for murder when he performed "Two White Horses Standin' in Line," a funeral song, for the Lomaxes during their visit to Clemens State. ~ Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
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