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. Read More