Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Lightning Washington and prisoners: Good God Almighty (1933)

"Lightning" Washington and prisoners, recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax at Darrington State Prison Farm, Sandy Point, Texas, December 1933.

In 1933, with the support of Macmillan Publishers and the Music Division of the Library of Congress, John A. Lomax made the first of his field-recording trips through the American South. Joined by his seventeen-year-old son Alan, Lomax visited some of the most notorious Southern penitentiaries — among them Sugar Land in Texas; Angola in Louisiana; Parchman Farm in Mississippi — where he knew anachronistic strains of African American folk-song would be preserved away from the influence of the radio, the phonograph, and cross-pollination with whites. The Lomaxes recorded the songs of timber and ground-clearing gangs, chants of the road and railroad crews, solo field hollers with their roots running deep into the antebellum south; they also recorded comic songs, blues, and spirituals. By late 1934, they had recorded dozens of singers and hundreds of songs — "poetic expressions," as Lomax described them, "of pungent wit, simple beauty, startling imagery, extraordinary vividness and power."

"Jail House Bound," a production of West Virginia University Press, collects the earliest of the Lomaxes' prison recordings — made between July and December 1933 in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee — drawing on new remasters from the fragile original acetate discs. The album is introduced by noted American music scholar Mark Allen Jackson (author of "Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie"). Released digitally (May 15, 2012) by Global Jukebox in collaboration with the West Virginia University Press.


  1. I remember growing up and seeing the line squads in the fields working. Darrington Unit grew mostly crops and some livestock. Driving down thru Sugarland way, most of that land was prison land. They had Darrington, Central, Clemems, Jester I, II & III, & Ramsey I, II, & III. You would see up to 5,000 inmates in the fields at one time. The field bosses high riding.

    They had a big cannery on the unit as well for produce harvested to be sent to the other prisons in Texas.

    The Texas prison system used to be self sustaining. They grew all their own food and actually generated money.

    This changed in the early 80's. When I left working in the prison system in 2004, you could not make them work. The only thing you could do is write them a disciplinary case.

    Talking to some of my friends that work there still, I would not be working there, I would have been fired as I was a strict boss. That's something the coddlers don't tolerate now days.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane Brock.

  2. Having grown up in North Carolina in the 50s "Chain Gangs", mostly all black, were pretty prevalent in the state. When they would work around our neighborhood I would go there just to listen to them sing. But if I got too close the guard would run me off.