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Category Archives: Songs

Crime and Prison Songs: “Prisoner’s Song”

In 1924, Vernon Dalhart, a classically trained light opera singer, had some success recording a song, “The Wreck On The Southern Old 97,” for the Edison Company, but believed that he could get wider distribution if he recorded it with Victor. The recording executives at Victor agreed, but they needed a song for the […]

Crime and Prison Songs: “John Henry”

“Take My Hammer” is a work song that possibly has roots going back to the time of slavery and was sung by convicts who were leased to dig tunnels through the Appalachian Mountains: Take my hammer, Carry it to the captain, Tell him I’m gone, Tell him I’m gone. If he ask you was […]

Crime and Prison Songs: “Prettiest Train”

From the 1870’s to the 1920’s, some Southern states contracted their convicts out to private landowners and companies to perform heavy labor, such as timbering, mining, railroad work, and farming. Little to no concern was given to the prisoners’ safety or health, and they received inadequate food, shelter, and clothing. Because the convicts belonged […]

Crime and Prison Songs: “Jumpin’ Judy”

In 1933, John and Alan Lomax visited prison farms in the South in the hope of recording African-American songs that dated back to the time of slavery. Their visits were based on the theory that the best places to find songs of slavery preserved in their purest form were in prison camps, with their […]

Crime and Prison Songs: “Black Betty”

In the 1930’s, John A. Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax, traveled around the United States collecting and recording ballads and songs sung by cowboys, lumberjacks, slaves, creoles, and railway men. They also recorded work songs sung by convicts in Southern prison farms. The following song, “Black Betty,” appears in their 1934 compilation, American […]

Crime and Prison Songs: Jason’s Jail Mix

My brother-in-law recently created a CD-mix of songs about jails, prisons, and crime for me. I enjoyed listening to it so much that I thought I would reproduce it for Early American Crime. “In The Jail House Now” – Soggy Bottom Boys “Jailhouse Rock” – Elvis Presley (See the video from Last.fm.) “I Shot the […]