Little Known Black History Fact: Jail House Bound

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  • “Jail House Bound: John Lomax’ First Southern Prison Recordings” was an album released in 1933 by John Lomax. Lomax, who was a graduate student at Harvard, was encouraged by an English professor to pursue a historical collection of meaningful music through travel and experience for his thesis. Lomax was told to “Go out and get this material while it can be found — the words and the tunes. Set down the dates of your recordings. The name of the singer and where he got the song. . . . Preserve the words and music. That’s your job.”

    The white researcher received a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies and went on a mission to “preserve the African-American culture” through music, before full racial integration. Lomax, who had worked as a bond salesman, believed that the music in African-American culture would be changed forever after full integration, so he wanted to obtain recordings in fully-segregated environments. He believed the one place to achieve that sound was the jailhouse, which segregated the inmates.

    During a prison tour of the South, John Lomax carried a portable recording device to make recordings of the songs the black prisoners sang while doing chain gang labor. The prisoners were not professional singers, but people supported the gritty music lyrics and “realness” of the sound.

    Sometime in 1934, John Lomax discovered Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter at Angola State Penitentiary. Lead Belly worked as Lomax’ driver after being released, driving him to the southern prisons to record music. Along the way, the men recorded music from blues legends, James “Iron Head” Baker, Mose “Clear Rock” Platt, and Lightnin’ Washington.

    Some of the popular songs from “Jailhouse Bound: John Lomax’ First Southern Prison Recordings” include “Black Betty, and “Steel Laying Holler” which referred to men unloading heavy steel rails from flat cars. There was also “Track Lining Song,” was used to help in the lining or straightening out of railroad track.

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