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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 flipside of the record.

The Flipside

Dalhart’s cousin, Guy Massey, put together some lyrics for Dalhart and called his song, “Prisoner’s Song.” Massey mainly got the lyrics from his brother, who had spent time in prison and had heard other prisoners sing the song. The lyrics are the laments of a narrator-singer who is about to head to prison. He reflects on his loneliness, and he fantasizes about the ability to fly away from prison and into the arms of the woman of his dreams.

Oh, I wish I had someone to love me
Someone to call me their own
Oh, I wish I had someone to live with
‘Cause I’m tired of livin’ alone.

Vernon Dalhart (Prints and Photographs Division - Library of Congress)

Oh, please meet me tonight in the moonlight
Please meet me tonight all alone
For I have a sad story to tell you
It’s a story that’s never been told.

I’ll be carried to the new jail tomorrow
Leavin’ my poor darlin’ alone
With the cold prison bars all around me
And my head on a pillow of stone.

Now I have a grand ship on the ocean
All mounted with silver and gold
And before my poor darlin’ would suffer
Oh, that ship would be anchored and sold.

Now if I had wings like an angel
Over these prison walls I would fly
And I’d fly to the arms of my poor darlin’
And there I’d be willin’ to die.

Altered Lyrics

For the most part, Massey’s lyrics closely reproduce a nineteenth-century English folksong called “Meet Me By the Moonlight.” The main difference between the two songs is that the Massey’s title announces that the singer is a prisoner, and the song says as much in the third stanza. “Meet Me By the Moonlight,” on the other hand, only reveals that the narrator-singer is a prisoner at the very end of the song.

Meet me by the moonlight, love, meet me,
Meet me by the moonlight alone, alone.
I have a sad story to tell you
All down by the moonlight alone.

I’ve always loved you my darling,
You said I’ve never been true.
I’d do anything just to please you
I’d die any day just for you

I have a ship on the ocean
All lined with silver and gold,
And before my little darling shall suffer,
I’ll have the ship anchored and sold

If I had wings like an angel,
Over these prison walls I would fly.
I’d fly to the arms of my darling
And there I’d be willing to die

More than likely, Massey’s brother had heard other prisoners singing “Meet Me By the Moonlight,” and the inmates over time altered the lyrics so that the song better reflected their own situation. Still, Guy Massey received credit for composing the song.

Copyright Issues

Nat Shilkret, the musical director at Victor records, took Massey’s lyrics and composed the tune for the song, although Carson Robison, who plays guitar on the Dalhart recording, claimed that he also helped compose the tune. Years later, Robison included the song in a songbook he put together. Perhaps in protest, he altered the title to “The New Prisoner’s Song” and attributed its composition to the public domain by using the fictional composer “E. V. Body” (read “Everybody”). Dalhart assigned the song’s copyright to his cousin, but ended up taking possession of it when Massey died.

Copyright issues also followed the song that provided the original impetus for Dalhart’s record. After the record’s release, more than fifty authorship claims and two lawsuits were filed for the rights to “The Wreck On The Southern Old 97.”

Dalhart’s record was released on October 3, 1924, and it was an instant hit. But its popularity was not due to “The Wreck On The Southern Old 97.” “Prisoner’s Song” turned out to be the reason why so many people bought the record.

“Prisoner’s Song” became the first country music record to sell over a million copies, and by 1926 it was the best-selling popular song in the United States. The song turned Vernon Dalhart into a hillbilly recording star, although you can certainly hear the operatic training of Dalhart in the recording. I had planned to play at least some of Dalhart’s performance of the song in the accompanying podcast to this post, but copyright restrictions prevent me from doing so. Nonetheless, you can listen to Dalhart’s version of “Prison Song” at the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox.

Ernest Helton

One year after Dalhart recorded “Prisoner’s Song,” Robert Winslow Gordon, the director of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, recorded Ernest Helton’s version of “Prisoner’s Song.” The tune of Helton’s version is similar to Dalhart’s, but the words more directly address the hardships of prison life.

Ernest Helton and his brother, Osey

Well, it’s hard to be locked up in prison
‘way from your friends and your home,
With the cold iron bars all around you
And a pillow that is made out of stone.

Chorus:
Lone and sad, sad and lone
Sitting in my cell all alone;
Thinking of the days that’s gone by me,
Of the days when I knew I had a home.

[False Start]

Lone and sad, sad and lone,
Sitting in my cell all alone;
Thinking of the days that’s gone by me,
Of the days when I knew I had a home.

Seven long years I been in prison,
Seven long years yesterday,
For knocking a man down in the alley

And taking his gold watch and chain.

Chorus

I once had a father and a mother,
I wonder if they ever think of me;
I once had a sister and a brother

Dwelled in a [?] cottage by the sea

Chorus

I am going to a new jail tomorrow,
I’m leaving the ones that I love.
I’m leaving my friends and relations,

And oh how lonely my home.

Chorus

Click on the podcast link connected to this post to listen to Helton’s version of “Prisoners Song” and to learn more about Robert Winslow Gordon and Ernest Helton.

Note that the recording of Helton’s “Prisoner’s Song,” which is also available on the Library of Congress’s website, omits the last three choruses because of technical difficulties in copying the original cylinder.

Sources

5 Comments

  1. There is also an English song called “Botany Bay” (one of several) with this verse:

    Oh had I the wings of a turtle dove
    I’d soar on my pinions so high
    Slap bang to the arms of my Polly love
    And in her sweet presence I’d die

    Allegedly from an 1885 London play. It’s not the same melody, but there must be some connection to the American song.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  2. Lloyd Stewart wrote:

    While I was looking for the author of I wish I had someone to love me I found a comment that the song was writen in 1924 this surprise me since I had found a version by Harry Lauther recorded in 1912. Although his version is more for laughts and only seems to use the line I wish I had someone to love me the tune is similar if not the same. This would lead me to think that this tune has been around for a lone time and Mr. Massay and his cousin pulled a big one one the Amarican public and got creaded for something they should not have.

    Friday, December 14, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  3. destiny wrote:

    Hmmmm, weird. My grandfather. ….. A AMAZING POET DID TIME IN LEAVENWORTH AND HE WROTE THAT SONG…..WHILE IN PRISON

    Thursday, July 24, 2014 at 9:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Thom Long wrote:

    Is there a recording available of Seven Long Years in State Prison?

    Saturday, August 23, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink
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