The “unlove and unfreedom” in Johnnie B. Smith’s work songs.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature.
During the thirteen years he spent jailed for murder on a Texas prison farm, Johnnie B. Smith sang work songs. In 1964, the ethnomusicologist Bruce Jackson met Smith during a trip through the state prison system to document the dwindling number of older, black prisoners who still knew the sorts of songs Smith led. He taped Smith’s renditions of a handful of standards: “Drop ’Em Down Together,” “Sure Make a Man Feel Bad,” “Poor Boy.” But Smith, Jackson soon learned, also sang songs of his own writing, stranger and more private than the ones he’d heard passed down.
These songs share a structure and melody, but they allow for a nearly limitless range of embellishments and improvisations. Their stanzas, for the most part, have four lines each—a single couplet sung in two variations. Their melody, which Smith adjusts verse by verse and song by song, is more difficult to describe. Its tempo accelerates and slows downs unexpectedly; its volume swells and falls; it changes gears rattlingly; it’s marked by disquieting pockets of silence. The shortest of these songs is over six minutes long; the longest, more than twenty-three.
At the time Jackson conducted his fieldwork, Ramsey—where Smith was held—was one of fourteen prisons in the Texas Correctional System. It comprised a sprawling farm property produced by combining five former plantations. Inmates felled trees, picked cotton, and worked the fields; the resulting products were either used within the prison or sold to cover the cost of housing the prisoners themselves. (As late as the early 1960s, the work teams were entirely segregated.) Ramsey’s inmates were, in effect, funding their own imprisonment, and for many decades black prisoners did so under conditions not much different from those of chattel slavery. The “riders” and “captains” Smith addresses across his songs were horse-mounted bosses whose brutality toward the work crews was widely known and feared.
In his 1972 work-song study Wake Up Dead Man, one of the only extensive sources of information about Smith’s life and music, Jackson devoted some twenty-seven pages to testimonies by inmates about the field captains whose regimes they’d survived at Ramsey and two other prisons, Ellis and Wynne. A prisoner recalled seeing one captain—who was said to have killed the revered inmate “Jack O’Diamonds” and inherited his epithet—“whip a man down to the ground if he plant a crooked row.” A second inmate reported that the captain “said he had a graveyard of his own”; a third and fourth, that when he himself sat down in the fields to die in 1948, shaking and “white as a sheet,” he muttered, “I hate for all these niggers to see me die. Well, I don’t give a damn: I seen a many a them die.”
Both men named Jack O’Diamonds—the convict and the captain—appear often in the work songs Jackson collected at the three prisons at the center of his book. Wynne had an older population of inmates that, Jackson wrote, “served as a kind of check when I tried to date some of the songs.” Younger prisoners hardly sung work songs by the time Jackson made his interviews and recordings; the music came from a set of circumstances that had faded or no longer held. Work crews were just being integrated; field captains couldn’t get away so easily with the cruelty for which they once had immunity; the work of logging teams was being transferred to machines; and younger black prisoners “saw the songs as holdovers from slavery and Uncle Tom days,” as Nathan Salsburg quotes Jackson in the Oxford American, and later in the liner notes to Dust to Digital’s collection of Smith’s songs.
One can imagine younger prisoners wanting to repudiate the music of their predecessors, but it’s also not hard to imagine that the songs themselves might have struck younger black prisoners in the sixties as defeatist or resigned. “The songs,” Jackson wrote in the introduction to Wake Up Dead Man, “concentrate on the devices and forms of control, and the manifestations of impotence. The language of the songs is highly concrete, but the themes are not; the themes are negatives: things like unlove and unfreedom and unimportance.”
Everywhere in Smith’s songs, imprisonment is associated with private trauma and regret. “No More Good Time in the World For Me” floats from memories to hopeful promises to gestures of abandonment and loss. A representative line begins with a loud, air-clearing “well.” “I’m a lifetime skinner,” Smith sings, stretching out skinner—a word for the driver of a prison mule team—until it bleeds into a sighing “oh brother.” (Smith likes to punctuate his stanzas with personal addresses; in its thirteen minutes, the same song contains appeals to “riders,” “partners,” “buddies,” “babies,” women, and men.) When he sings “I never will go free,” he runs “will go” hurriedly together, like a single word capped by a drawn-out vowel. “Free” is two long, muffled syllables, leading to the murmured cadences of the last line: “No more good time, buddy, in the wide, wide world for me.”
Smith incorporated dozens of lines and stanzas from other prison songs into his lyrics, but the resulting songs didn’t exactly resemble any of the music he’d studied or led. He told Jackson that his song “Woman Trouble” was “a little short one”—it runs to fourteen minutes—about a man “worried about some old woman in the free world.” The speaker is haunted over the absence of a woman (“said she’d be back tomorrow, partner, but she carried her clothes”). But he also moves in a world populated by shadowy, threatening male overseers and guardians. His parents worry that his work for a “Mr. Cunningham” is breaking him down; he “can’t run away,” he says, because “they got a man at the crossing won’t let me by.” In this, one of Smith’s grimmest songs, you feel the singer’s world constricting, the pressures outside him stoking and intensifying the fire inside. There are glimpses of something unspeakable:
She got a hole in her belly, boy, and it won’t get well,
And the more you rub it, well, the more it swell.
In other cases Smith’s songs get energy from displays of defiance, turning from resignation to boasts and threats. “Rider, your two-barrel Derringer … it don’t worry my mind,” the narrator of “I Got Too Much Time for the Crime I Done” tells his overseer: “Oh, the way I’m lookin’, that’s the way I’m goin’.” The speaker in “No More Good Time” warns that if he “had my .32-20, rider, just one round of lead / I wouldn’t leave enough living, oh man, to bury the dead.” The astonishing, twenty-three-minute-long “Ever Since I Been a Man Full Grown” is full of proud announcements posed as counterfactuals or put in the subjunctive, visions of what Smith could or would do had he the power:
Well, I’m goin’ to Oklahoma, marry an Indian squaw,
When I get her daughter, I be her son-in-law.
If I beat you to the Brazos, sergeant, oh man, you can blow your horn,
Well, I done got worried, I’ll be gone ’fore long.
Had my big horse pistol, buddy, just one round of ball,
I would leave here walkin’, I wouldn’t run at all.
If I had the good luck, buddy, oh, hey, oh, like I had the bad,
I’d win a barrel of dollars and a keg of halves.
Smith was serving his fourth sentence when Jackson met him. As a younger man, he’d spent ten years in Ramsey for robbery and a related assault. He went free at thirty-five and no longer had a family. “I lost my people while I was in here,” he told Jackson, “and just felt like I was kind of in the world alone.” Restless and lonely, he moved to west Texas and met a beautiful woman, “about three-quarters Indian, I guess.” They married and he got a job. But, he told Jackson,
I couldn’t give her all she wanted and she’d sneak out a little. That went to causing trouble. I was intending to get in good shape, but I hadn’t been out there long enough, not to make it on the square, you know. She wanted a fine automobile, she like a good time, a party girl, she liked to drink, she liked to dress nice. So did I, and so I was living a bit above my income. And she would sneak out to enjoy these little old pleasures and that caused us some family trouble. On a spur of the moment I came in one day, we had a fight and I cut her to death. And regret it! Because I loved her still and still do and can’t get her back.
Did Smith write songs before his fourth imprisonment? He didn’t date his compositions, and it’s possible he kept embellishing and adding to them over the years. When he described his songwriting method to Jackson, he suggested that the music was almost a spontaneous product of his circumstances. “They just come to you,” he said. “You can always make a song out of your surroundings … King David in the Bible, he used to make his psalms from the stars, and he wrote so many psalms.” But Jackson only recorded a handful of Smith’s compositions. One wonders how many, if any, Smith didn’t sing for his visitor.
The pair was close enough for Jackson to write a letter in Smith’s defense when he went up for parole—a brief, eloquent endorsement that might have contributed to the board’s decision to let Smith leave Ramsey. On parole, Smith played the 1967 Newport Folk Festival at Jackson’s encouragement, where he briefly hung out with Pete Seeger and Muddy Waters. The disappointing outcome of his time free is relegated to an affectless parenthetical in Wake Up Dead Man: “He was paroled in 1967, lived in Amarillo for awhile and did some preaching; I heard recently that he’d been returned to prison for a parole violation.”
“In fieldwork,” Jackson would later write, “being an outsider is often useful because people feel they have to explain things to you, sometimes more than once.” It also, as Jackson knew well, creates a kind of fraught and formal distance between the person holding the recorder and the person in front of it. Jackson’s recordings of Smith are magnificent testaments to what can be captured from across that distance, and to what extent it could be bridged by mutual respect and goodwill. But in another sense, these recordings remain intimidating and remote: they make for expressions of suffering so clear and strong that they seem to exist in a territory most of their listeners can’t have lived in long enough to know. In this, they’re perhaps like the work songs they draw on—“a weapon,” as Jackson put it, “against a kind of death not much appreciated by those of us lucky enough or clever enough to run free or to imprison ourselves by our own choice only.”
Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review, n+1, Film Comment, and Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York.
Previous entries in Prison Lit:
- Jones Very, Essays and Poems
- Lady Constance Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners
- John Cleland, Fanny Hill
- François Villon, The Testament; Paul Verlaine, Romances sans paroles and Sagesse; Gregory Corso, Gasoline and The Vestal Lady on Brattle; Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
- Austin Reed, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict
- Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
- Christopher Smart, “Jubilate Agno”; John Clare, “Child Harold”
- George Jackson, Soledad Brother
- Madame Roland, The Private Memoirs
- Abdellatif Laâbi, The Reign of Barbarism and Le livre imprévu
- Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
- John Bunyan, Grace Abounding; Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from a Dead House