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Wake Up Dead Man Audio Recording

Bruce Jackson's 1994 album notes for the CD release of his recordings of work songs in a Texas prison.

This album of powerful work songs was recorded in Texas prisons in the middle 1960s and offers a look at a tradition now pretty much defunct, though one that served real needs and functions for black prisoners until recent times. Worksongs helped give comfort to prisoners and indeed helped them to survive the grueling work demanded of them. This record is a companion to the book of the same title, originally published by Harvard University Press and now republished by the University of Georgia Press.

p 1975 & 1994 Rounder Records Corp.

Rounder ROU 2013

Wake Up Dead Man: Black Convict Worksongs From Texas Prisons

1. Jody 7:36

2. Julie 2:50

3. Long Hot Summer Days 3:35

4. I'm In The Bottom 4:10

5. Captain Don't Feel Sorry For A Longtime Man 5:24

6. Down The Line 3:05

7. Early In The Morning 5:32

8. Hammer Ring 6:45

9. Fallin' Down 3:10

10. Log Loading Talk, Yells, Chants 4:18

11. Grizzly Bear 4:13

Recorded and edited by Bruce Jackson

A production of the Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York at Buffalo.

Photography by Bruce Jackson.

Design by Douglas Parker.

Library of Congress #74-750921.

The Worksong

This album consists of some worksongs performed by black convicts in Texas prisons in the middle 1960s. The tradition is now pretty much defunct; that demise happened in the past ten years. The worksong lasted in prison because it helped people make it, helped them survive; it died because it was no longer useful.

The worksong is not a song about work or a song one happens to sing while work goes on; it is a song that helps a person or group of persons do work.

The worksong tradition isn't exclusively black sailors used them for hoisting sail and raising anchor, Greeks used them while treading grapes, Scots used them while pulling tweed but blacks are the only Americans whose worksong tradition survived into the twentieth century. That is because they were the only twentieth century Americans who needed worksongs.

In West Africa, worksong lyrics were often religious; in North America, some were based on spiritual songs, but more had to do with the specifics of the work situation, with things that were absent (women and family and freedom) and things that were present (the guards, the wire, the unending fields).

The prison worksongs served at least four important functions:

1. They helped supply a meter for work, which was useful for survival in the dangerous work of tree-cutting, efficient in other kinds of work, and, according to the singers, a more aesthetically pleasing way of working.

2. They helped pass the time, which is nice, because prison labor is usually boring.

3. They offered a partial outlet for the inmates' tensions and frustrations and angers. There is a long tradition in the South of the black man being permitted to sing things he is not permitted to say; the whites never assumed the words blacks sang had any meaning. "In the river songs," one inmate said, "you tell the truth about how you feel. You can't express it to the boss. They really be singing about the way they feel inside. Since they can't say it to nobody, they sing a song about it." (In Texas, black convicts called the worksongs "river songs" because all of the Texas prisons were located on the Brazos or Trinity river bottomlands.)

4. They kept a man from being singled out for whipping because he worked too slowly. The songs kept all together, so no one could be beaten to death for mere weakness. In Texas, slow workers were punished by ten or more licks with the "Bat," a strip of leather 30 inches long, four inches wide, one-quarter inch thick, attached to a wooden handle. One inmate said, "When the hide'd leave, the skin'd leave with it."

There were different songs for different kinds of work. They varied in verbal, metric, melodic and choral complexity. White inmates of the same prisons had nothing like them, nor, so far as I know, did they ever join the black inmates when desegregation began in the 1960's. One black inmate told me the songs let the blacks get by with much less work because the guards didn't understand how much the group could slow down the pace without notice. I asked why the whites never picked them up and he said, "They just ain't got the rhythm."

Because the worksong was more functional than entertaining, it had a different aesthetic from performance songs. Rhyme was rare; usually, especially in the faster songs, the leader would simply sing the same line twice and the group would repeat a regular chorus. A good leader was not known for the lovely voice tones, but rather by an ability to be heard over the noise of the work going on, by ability to maintain a steady beat, by ability to keep coming up with enough verses. The songs are lyric, narrative is rare, so the lead singer could easily draw from a large stanzaic repertory or even make up lines as he went along. There were many formulaic devices for extending a song.

The fastest and simplest songs were those used for cutting down trees. The work was called crosscutting. The men would position themselves around a tree; I've seen as many as eight men working around one trunk. Half the men would swing from right to left, the other half in alternating positions would swing from left to right. These were the fastest songs because the axe never rested on the ground, so it was easier to keep moving at a steady pace, and also because in the crosscutting songs half the group would hit at a time, so there were two axe sounds for each work cycle. The strikes are cleaner, more in unison, in these songs than in other axe and hoe songs. That is because if one is out of position while crosscutting, he might lose a hand or get scalped.

Somewhat slower were the axe songs used for logging, the job of cutting a felled tree into small sections. In the old days, the logs were used to fire water boilers, heat stoves in the barracks, fire the boilers in the sugar cane processing plant, and for lumber. When these recordings were made, wood was still used for lumber, but the trunks were no longer used for heating rooms or water in the barracks. Some was still used in the cane plant the last time I visited, but the other uses were gone, so there was little need for short logs. The best chopper would get the "butt cut," the thick end, the worst got the "wing," where the branches start. When a log was on the ground the men would line up along it and chop down so it was cut into sections about four feet long; when the log was very thick, they would stand atop it and let the axe fall between their feet. Because there was no danger from bad timing one won't be hit by one's neighbor or be hit by him should either get out of time the strokes are not so carefully together as they are in the crosscutting songs. They are together most of the time, but not all, and sometimes you hear a brief ripple as the axes stick within a second or two of each other.

Flatweeding is the Texas convict term for any kind of work done with a hoe building roads, busting clods after a tractor has gone through and turned up dry ground, turning turf, cleaning ditches, chopping cotton. As the prison system acquired more machinery, less work was done with hoes; they are still used for chopping cotton and getting into places too tight for the machines. Because of the length of the hoe and the resulting long arc of travel, these are the slowest of the worksongs, and of the three kinds so far mentioned, tend to be the most complex lyrically and melodically.

Unmetered group work has associated with it the songs most complex in melody, lyrics and group involvement. These songs do not time the group, but they do time the individual workers that is, a worker may work at several paces, depending how he reads the meter, and a half-dozen men singing will not move the same way at the same time. Sometimes the songs are nearly solo blues, sometimes they are very complex choral events.

The black convict worksong survived into the early 1960s because the southern penitentiary was a copy of the mid-19th century plantation (which itself was probably based on African models there had been nothing like it in British agricultural tradition). The songs lasted until prison reform made them anachronistic. The overt brutality in the fields ended and slow workers were no longer tortured. Heavy machinery became more economical than large labor forces, so many of the field inmates were reassigned to inside jobs and training programs. Younger blacks saw the songs as holdovers from slavery and Uncle Tom days and refused to join the older black men in performing them. Finally, integration, which put white and black inmates in the same work groups, stopped the songs entirely: the whites wouldn't and couldn't do them, and the nature of the work was such that if every one in a group didn't work in time, no one could.

The genre never moved back outside prison camps because, with the end of non-prison gang labor in the South, there was no occasion for performance; one doesn't sing a worksong in a steel mill and these weren't songs one would sit around and chant at a bar or on the porch. The songs existed only in connection with a harsh set of social conditions, and once those conditions altered significantly, the songs disappeared entirely.

Recording Notes

Recording note:

The groups for cuts 1, 3, 7, 10 and 11 consisted of sixteen workers; the groups for cuts 2, 4 , 6, 8 and 9 consisted of four workers; the group for cut 5 consisted of three workers. All songs except "Captain Don't Feel Sorry for a Longtime Man" were recorded outdoors in actual work areas with a Uher 4000 tape recorder and an AKG D-19E microphone. "Captain" was recorded indoors with a Tandberg 64 recorder and two AKG D-19E microphones. The master tape was edited in the studios of WGBH-FM (Boston). There is available a 16 mm sound film of some of the songs recorded during the March 1966 field trip, Afro-American Worksongs in a Texas Prison, edited by Dan Seeger (Folklore Research Films) and made by Dan, Peter and Toshi Seeger and myself.

Portions of these notes and transcriptions are from my book, Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1972); those portions and texts are reprinted here with the permission of the publishers, and the president and Fellows of Harvard College.

Song Transcriptions

Text transcriptions and notes to the songs:

(The parenthetical number following the title of each song refers to its location in the book Wake Up Dead Man. If music transcriptions of the version published in this album appear in the book, the entry number is asterisked. An asterisk after a word or expression in the transcriptions indicates that term is defined in the glossary at the end of these notes.)

1. "Jody" Benny Richardson and group, crosscutting, Ellis Unit, March 24, 1966 (35-A*)

Jody the folk character who picks up a man's woman when the man is off somewhere against his will has figured in tradition for some time. His activities are best described in the long toast called "Jody the Grinder and G.I. Joe." (Versions of that toast are found in Roger D. Abrahams' Deep Down in the Jungle rev. ed. [Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co., 1970, 169-170] and my Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: Narrative Poetry from Black Oral Tradition [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974, 95-98]). The toast dates from shortly after World War II, but Jody was around earlier. He is named in the brief blues "Joe the Grinder," recorded by John A. Lomax from the singing of Irvin Lowry in Gould, Arkansas, in 1939 (which appears on Afro-American Blues and Songs, Archive of American Folk Song L-14). During the war years Jody figured in the well-known marching chant, "Sound Off," one version of which is printed in Alan Lomax's The Folk Songs of North America (Garden City, N.Y., 1960), 595. Lomax says that, "In many variants this was sung by all Negro outfits in World War II." Woody Guthrie, in an undated note included in Born to Win (edited by Robert Shelton, Macmillan, New York, 1966, 22), says, "The best of marching I saw in my eight months in the army was to the folk words of a folky chant tune that went: Ain't no use in writin' home/Some joker got your gal an' gone./Hey, boy, ya' got left, right?/Ho, boy, ya' got right."

This text is anomalous in the crosscutting repertory in that the leader sings rhymed couplets. (The only other song with so much rhyme is the version of "Grizzly Bear" on this album, also done by Benny Richardson.) Instead of repeating lines to gain time to think up new lines, as most singers do most of the time, Richardson occasionally introduces a "stall stanza" in which he simply sings the chorus, "Yeah, yeah" for a few lines. Some of the stanzas have a haiku-like brevity and force; the rhymes are not contrived or strained; the melody is lovely. Unlike the sketchy World War II songs or chants and their Korean counterparts, this "Jody" forms itself into several descriptive and thematic blocks, each covered or developed before the singer moves on. The song represents a survival of traditions; one is thematic and deals with Jody and the threat he continued to represent in the folk culture, the threat of the man who hustles your woman when you are not there (in this text he gets not only the man's woman but his sister as well); the other has to do with the genre the song is one of the few we can say is of obvious recent adaptation and incorporation, It was one of the last worksongs composed or recomposed in the prison before the tradition mortified.

I've been working all day long

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Pickin' this stuff called cotton and corn

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

We raise cotton, cane and a-corn

'Tater and tomatoes and a-that ain't all

Back is weak and I done got tired

Got to tighten up* just to save my hide

Boss on a horse and he's watchin' us all

Better tighten up, [if you] don't we'll catch the hall*

Wonder if the major will go my bail*

[Or] give me twelve hours standing on the rail*

Yeah, yeah

Yeah, yeah

I see the captain sittin' in the shade

He don't do nothin' but a he get paid

We work seven long days in a row

Two sacks a Bull* and a picture show

In the wintertime we don't get no lay*

Cuttin' cane and makin' syrups a-every day

When it get wet in the cane field

All the squads work around the old syrup mill

Yeah, yeah,

Yeah, yeah

Two more months and it won't be long

Gonna catch the chain* 'cause I'm goin' home

Goin' back home to my old gal Sue

My buddy's wife and his sister, too

Ain't no need of you writin' home

Jody's got your girl and gone

Ain't no need of you feelin' blue

Jody's got your sister, too

First thing I'll do when I get a-home

Call my woman on the telephone

Yeah, yeah,

Yeah, yeah

Gonna settle down for the rest of my life

Get myself a job and get myself a wife

Six long years I've been in the pen

Don't want to come to this place again

Captain and the boss is drivin' us on

Makin' us wish we'd a-stayed at home

If we had listened what our mama say

We wouldn't be cuttin' wood a here today

Yeah, yeah

Yeah, yeah

Yeah, yeah

Yeah, yeah

Captain and the boss is drivin' us on

Makin' us wish we'd a stayed at home

We had listened what our mama say

We wouldn't [be] droppin' big timber here today

Yeah, yeah

Yeah, yeah

Push 'em jack*, jack, rollin' it up here boss*... that's a all day long... etc...

2. "Julie" W.D. Alexander and group, logging, Ellis Unit, August 21, 1965 (45*)

There is a poignancy to this song that gets lost in print. It is simple and direct. It is about loss and absence, about the woman and child somewhere else, the woman who cannot or will not hear the lonesome calls from the convict whose real sentence is the loss of his youth, the silence of his family. It is Alexander's song, though some of the lyrics are from the general stanzaic repertory. I recorded "Julie" on four separate occasions; Alexander sang lead each time.

Julie, hear me when I call you

Julie won't hear me (2x)

B'lieve I'll go to Dallas (2x)

Got to see my Julie

Oh my lordy

Raise 'em up together (3x)

Oh my lordy

Julie, hear me when I call you

Julie and the baby (2x)

Better get the sergeant (3x)

Oh my lordy

My feet is gettin' itchy

Feet is gettin' itchy (2x)

Oh my lordy

Got to see my Julie (3x)

Oh my lordy

Child's gettin' hungry (3x)

Oh my lordy

Rattler* can't hold me (3x)

Oh my lordy

Raise 'em little higher (3x)

Oh my lordy

Spoken: One more time

Julie, hear me when I call you

Julie won't hear me (2x)

Julie, Julie won't hear me

Spoken: Water, water

3. "Long Hot Summer Days" Joseph "Chinaman" Johnson and group, flatweeding, Ellis Unit, March 22, 1966 (59-A*)

The subject matter of this song needs no explanation for anyone who has ever experienced the Texas Gulf country in the bottomlands below Houston in the summertime, the months when heat blasts down from above, rises up from the ground, and seems to ripple horizontally across the fields all at once, the long summer when almost no rain falls but the air stays so humid that nothing dries except when hung in direct sunlight. The sun rises hot and red and goes down hot and red, and tempers and temperatures rise at about the same pace. A version of this song by Clyde Hill and group, Brazoria, Texas, was recorded by John A. and Ruby T. Lomax; it appears on Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs and Ballads (AFS L-3).

When old Hannah* go to beamin'

When old Hannah go to beamin'

When old Hannah go to beamin'

Lord God amighty

When old Hannah go to beamin'

When old Hannah go to beamin'

When old Hannah go to beamin'

In them long hot summer days

Make you want to see your mama...

Everybody gets worried...

When old Rattler* go howlin'...

When the bosses go to squabblin'...

Make you want to walk the water...

4. "I'm In The Bottom" Johnny Jackson and group, spading, Ramsey One Camp, August 22, 1965 (40-A*)

This song was improvised while Jackson and three other men were doing some work with spades one afternoon; I never heard it before or after that day. A year later I asked Jackson if he remembered it and he said, "No, but I could make another one up." The timing is the same as for the crosscutting songs; the workers slap the backs of the spades on the ground on the return stroke, which has the effect of doubling the apparent work tempo. The structure is as simple as most of the crosscutting songs: the leader calls out a line, the group responds, the leader repeats the line, the group responds with a slightly different burden for the repeat; occasionally the leader happens to rhyme, but there is no aesthetic pressure to do so.

In the bottom*, lordy now wo

I'm in the bottom, oh lord

I'm shovelin' dirt...

I'm getting tired...

It's in the mornin'...

I'm shovelin' cinder...

It's in the evenin'..

It's for the captain...

I started achin'...

All in my shoulder...

The boss don't believe it...

Here in my side man [?]...

I'm hurtin' all over...

Take me to the buildin'...

I need some water...

I need a doctor...

My heart is achin'...

Boss say I'm fakin'...

What I'm gonna do, man...

Gonna write my mother...

Tell her see the governor...

Ask him do somethin'...

I can't move now...

5. "Captain Don't Feel Sorry For A Longtime Man" Ebbie Veasley, Marshall Phillips and Theo Mitchell, Wynne Unit, August 18, 1965 (27*)

This cotton song consists of three parts: (I) the opening section of four stanzas; (II) the five-line stanza in which Veasley shifts the meter and melodic form somewhat ("Tell mama, a-tell mama...") which leads into the second regular section with the full group; (III) then the part in which Veasley and Phillips sing while Mitchell drops to his knees and chants the Lord's Prayer, with a final pair of stanzas in the form of the second regular section. Note that before Mitchell begins praying he takes the lead for one stanza and announces that he is going to pray; when he finishes, he sings, "I done prayed now" and the others respond to him immediately: "Oh pray a little longer." It is very rare that the antiphonal quality of these songs has such a dramatic counterpart; usually the antiphony is textual only. This is the only song I know in the Texas prison canon where there is a sense of two different entities communicating with one another usually we hear a group supplying a chorus for the lead singer or singing along with him.

Veasley:

Well I'm gonna write my mama,

And tell her to pray for me.

Mama, I got lifetime on this ole river, river,

Little girl and never go free.

Well I'm gonna write my mama,

And tell her [if] she wanna see me free, (one sings: alive)

Mama, just send me a box a cartridge,

Mama, 'n' a forty-five.

Captain, don't you never feel sorry, sorry,

Captain, for a longtime man.

He say, "Little boy, I don't never feel sorry, oh sorry,

Little boy, till I drive you down."

Well I called my mama,

And she could not come.

Well I called my partner,

Little boy, and broke and run.

(Others are calling and chanting during this stanza, which is used to shift the meter; only Veasley's words are transcribed here)

Tell mama, a-tell mama,

A-tell mama, tell-a mama not to worry.

Mama, don't you worry, Godamighty don't worry.

Goin' tell mama, goin' tell my mama,

Godamighty don't you worry.

Don't you worry 'bout my time-muh (3x)

Don't you worry 'bout my time.

Mama, I got a life time, (3x)

Don't you worry 'bout my time.

Godamighty, look-a yonder (3x)

Well a-yonder comes the sergeant (2x)

Well he's riding in a hurry (2x)

Godamighty look-a-yonder (2x)

I gotta break and run, suh (3x)

I'm gonna call Rattler*,

Well I b'lieve I'll call Rattler (2x)

That a man done gone, suh...

Well I b'lieve I'll pray now (3x) (Mitchell takes lead)

Godamighty, God knows.

(While Veasley and Phillips continue the song, Mitchell drops to his knees and begins chanting the Lord's Prayer; only the lines chanted by Veasley and Phillips are transcribed here.)

I gotta pray in a hurry (3x)

Godamighty, God knows.

Well he's ridin' in a hurry (3x)

Godamighty, God knows.

I got to make it to my mama,

I'm gonna make it to my mama,

I got to make it to my mama,

Godamighty, God knows-suh (6x)

(While Veasley and Phillips sing the last "God-amighty, God knows-suh," Mitchell chants, "Well I done prayed now." The other two respond as indicated below. The first of the transcribed lines of the final stanza below is sung by Mitchell "Now I ain't goin' worry" which he sings for the next two lines, as the others sing "Godamighty, don't worry.")

Pray a little longer,

Oh pray a little longer,

Won't you pray a little longer,

Godamighty, God knows-suh.

Well I ain't gonna worry (Mitchell, 3x)

Godamighty don't worry, (Veasley and Phillips, 2x)

Godamighty god knows-suh.

6. "Down The Line" Houston Page and group, flatweeding, Ramsey One Camp, August 22, 1965 (58*)

This flatweeding song seems to derive from a well-known crosscutting song, "Plumb the Line." The melodies of both songs are similar, and both use the naming catalog for the stanza sequence. Both may derive from a spiritual, "Plumb the Line," versions of which are found in Lydia Parrish, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands (New York, 1942), 67-70, and Harold Courlander, Negro Songs from Alabama, 2nd. ed (New York, 1963), 55. "Down the Line," as many of the simpler worksongs, is definitely expandable: the leader need only insert different nouns in any of the line patterns (i.e., anyone he thinks of might be "in Houston now," and not only is Black Betty "in the bottom now" but so are any inmates or guards he cares to mention).

Oh well I b'lieve I'll roll on, down the line (3x)

It takes a number one driver, down the line.

A-well, Black Betty's* in the bottom now...

A-well, my gal is in Houston now...

A-well, I'm callin' on you lead row*...

A-well, I'm callin' on you tail row*...

Oh well, the captain is a-ridin' now...

A-well, I b'lieve I'll roll on...

A-well, I b'lieve I'll move on...

7. "Early in the Morning" Willie "Cowboy" Craig and group, logging, Ellis, March 24, 1966 (56-A*)

The first sextet has lyrics often in "Midnight Special," a well-known prison song; the second sextet has lyrics often found in a worksong variously called "Haming on a Live Oak Log" or "Move Along 'Gator." After those two sextets, the song becomes an idiosyncratic chant of Cowboy's, and the meter alters as that personal change takes place from a regular eight-beat phrase to a seven-beat phrase. The eccentricity of that seven-beat shift (I don't know any other song in the Texas worksong canon where a similar construction occurs) probably accounts for the change in the way the group sings along: at first they harmonize, but after those first twelve lines their participation becomes far more casual. The occasional irregularity of the axe strokes is caused partly by the odd line length and partly by the more relaxed requirements of logging (as compared to crosscutting, where the axe strokes must be in time). Midline commas in the transcription indicate strong caesurae in the singing.

Well it's early in the morning, when the dingdong* ring,

Go a marching to the table, got the same damn thing.

Well it's nothing on the table, but the spoon and the pan,

If you say a thing about it, catch the hell out of the man.

Hollerin' oh my lordy, of my lordy, lord,

Hollerin' oh my lordy, oh my lordy, lord.

Well I'm down in the bottom*, on a live oak log,

Well I'm down there rollin', like a lowdown dog.

Well the captain and the sergeant, come a riding alone,

Say, You get go to haming*, if you want to go home."

Hollerin' oh my lordy, oh my lordy, lord,

Hollerin' oh my lordy, oh my lordy, lord.

Partner got to hold 'em, hold 'em no longer

Godamighty knows, God amighty knows

Partner who's the rider*, partner who's the rider

Godamighty knows

Hollerin' wo lord, Godamighty knows

Partner can't hold me, hold me no longer

Partner's got the robber*, partner's got the rob'

What you call the robber, crane wing* robber

Godamighty knows

Wo lord, Godamighty knows

Partner got to help me, help me to call 'em

Help me to call 'em, Godamighty knows

Make it dead easy, make it dead easy

Godamighty knows, Godamighty knows

Believe I'll call for water

Godamighty knows, Godamighty knows

Waterboy, oh waterboy

Bring me a drink a water, bring me a drink a water

Godamighty knows

Don't want to drink it, don't want to drink it

Godamighty knows

Pour it on my diamond*, pour it on my diamond

Diamond strikin' fire, Godamighty knows

Hollerin' wo lord, Godamighty knows

Partner's gettin' worried, partner's gettin' worried

Worried 'bout Mabel, Mabel and the baby

Godamighty knows

Hollerin' wo lord, Godamighty knows

Partner I got to leave, partner I got to leave

Leave you doggin'*, Godamighty knows

Leave you doggin', doggin' with the crane

Doggin' with the crane, Godamighty knows

Hollerin' wo lord, Godamighty knows

Godamighty knows...

8. "Hammer" Ring Henry Scott and group, crosscutting, Ellis, August 21, 1965 (38)

This simple song all stanzas are simply one line sung twice, with the group joining for the brief chorus is probably the most frequently sung axe song in Texas prisons. I have recorded 19 versions by 13 different leaders; the Archive of Folk Song Check-List of Recorded Song lists nine performances, all but one from Texas. There are hundreds of stanzas for "Hammer Ring," but older inmates often include in the lyrics a group of stanzas about Noah being sent to cut big timber for his ark (hence the association). In one 32-stanza version by an inmate who had been in since 1938 (he was out twice for short periods, but shot up some people and was sent back) there were seven stanzas at the beginning having to do with the prison, then the other 25 stanzas formed a coherent narrative about Noah getting his commission, making the boat, people laughing at him, the floods coming, the attempts of the laughers to get on board, and Noah's refusal because "the angels got the keys." Scott is younger and his version lacks the Biblical sections. His song is a call to his fellow workers to keep up with him, to sing loud enough to give him spirit; he calls about his woman far away and sings a while about a well-known guard (one reputed to have killed many inmates) from the old days, one "Jack O Diamonds." "Jack O Diamonds" figures in many versions of this song, mainly because most versions (not this one for some reason) have a few lines about the worker's diamond (argot for his axe), which leads to thoughts about the guard with the same name.

I'm goin' down to the bottom*, let your hammer ring... (2x)

A-just to ring my hammer*...

I got a nine-pound hammer...

I'm gonna ring it in the bottom...

Well my partner's got worried...

I can't hear my partner's holler...

I'm gonna call a little louder...

I'm goin' down to the Braley [Brazos]*...

Oh just to cool my hammer...

Oh well I believe I call baby...

Oh well my baby's Evalina...

Oh Evalina I call you...

I got a letter from baby...

'Cause well my baby's Elnora...

'Cause well I believe I spied [the] rider*...

Oh well who was [the] rider...

Oh well he rode 'em on the Brazos...

Oh Jack O Diamonds [was] a ruler...

A well he drove 'em on the Brazos...

A well butt-cut* crackin'*...

You better watch-a my timber...

'Cause there won't be no more jackin'*...

Why don't you bring me a drink a water...

Oh well a pull-do* can't hold 'em...

A he's a number one driver...

I don't believe he can hold 'em...

Why don't you drop 'em down together...

I'm gonna cool my hammer...

Oh well my partner's got worried...

Oh well he worried about his baby...

I can't hear nobody holler...

Oh well drop 'em down together...

I'm gonna cross the big Brazos...

(shouted: Timber gettin' limber!)

Oh just to cool my hammer...

Oh Black Betty's* in the bottom...

Why don't you call a little louder...

Oh Evalina, Evalina...

(spoken: Jack, jack it off!* You're not goin' burn down...Rollin' it up here*... etc....)

9. "Fallin' Down" Joseph "Chinaman" Johnson and group, crosscutting, Ellis, August 21, 1965 (42-A*)

A few minutes before a big tree falls, it begins to "get limber," that is, it starts rocking slowly back and forth in a narrow arc that increases a few degrees with each rock and as more and more chips are cut out closer to the center. As the tree rocks there are splintering noises "crackin'" in the song made as uncut fibers are ripped apart. If the men happen to be singing when that process starts, they sometimes change to this song, or one like it, to warn the other workers in the area that the tree will be falling soon. One inmate said, "When the tree get ready, when they cut that tree almost down and it's almost ready to fall, some a them will be draggin' brush and so they [the axemen] be singing to the ones that's draggin' brush to tell them to get out of the way: "Timber gettin' limber.'"

Chinaman's opening line, "A-well my hammer keep a-hangin'," refers to the tendency of the axe to stick in the notch in the rocking tree, caught by the compression caused by the weight of the entire tree on a decreasing center.

A-well my hammer keep a hangin', 'cause it's fallin' down (2x)

A-well my timber gettin' limber...

A-well my diamond* strikin' fire...

A-well the tree is gettin' limber...

You better watch him, better watch him...

Oh if it hit you, don't you holler...

I done warned you 'n' done told you...

You better watch him, better watch him...

A-well my timber gettin' limber...

Oh well my diamond strikin' fire...

If it hit you don't you holler...

I done warned you 'n' done told you 'bout...

You better watch it everybody...

So soon in the mornin' and it's...

10. "Log Loading"

This section consists of talk, yells, calls, and chants uttered while a group of inmates loaded long logs onto a metal flatbed trailer on Ellis (March 22, 1966). There is random chatter until the leaders call out to get everyone together for the three parts of the task lifting the log from the ground, moving it forward to the side of the trailer, then lifting it and heaving it up to the trailer bed. Some of the song fragments here (such as the "Raccoon up a 'simmon tree" verse) date at least from early in the 19th century.

11. "Grizzly Bear" Benny Richardson and group, crosscutting, Ellis, March 22, 1966 (33-A8)

Many inmates believed this song was about Carl Luther MacAdams, who was for a long time warden of Ellis (the unit for multiple recidivists, troublemakers, escape risks, etc.), and before that warden of Ramsey (which served the same functions before Ellis Unit was built in the early 1960s). MacAdams had the reputation of being the toughest and fairest warden in the Texas prison system; there were many folktales about how in the old days he broke up riots by walking into the riot areas alone and taking off rioters one by one until there were none left because most ran away before he was finished with whatever he was doing. MacAdams' nickname was "The Track" or "Beartracks," and the songs was connected with him because of the similarity of his nickname and the name of the song's protagonist.

But whatever inmates in the 1960s thought about the song's inspiration, oldtimers insist it wasn't MacAdams at all, but someone who worked in the prison long before he joined it in the late 1930's, a man named Joe Oliver. One inmate said, "Jack O Diamonds had a man up under him, his name was Joe Oliver and they named him 'Jack the Bear.' You could see him comin' from the bottom and they'd say, 'There come Bear.' Then other guys, if they foolin' around in any kind of ways, then they know that the captain is coming and they'll tighten up a little bit. And so guys just got together, go to practicing, and someone said, 'You just follow me.' Got out there in the woods and we just got to hollering and eventually they made a song out of it. And that's where it started from."

"It didn't start with Captain Mac then?" I asked him.

"MacAdams? Oh, he wasn't even in the system when that song came down, don't let nobody tell you he was. He got the name of Big Bear. See, Warden MacAdams, I don't know how long he had been in the system, but he ain't been in that long. Don't let nobody tell you that song was built up behind MacAdams because it wasn't. Originally that song was built behind Joe Oliver. Joe Oliver was the one they called Jack the Bear, he was the assistant warden under Jack O Diamonds. Oliver left the first of '41."

It may be true that the song existed before MacAdams came into the prison system or got his nickname, but it is peculiar that there are no versions recorded before 1951. The Lomaxes did a thorough job of covering the Texas prisons when they visited them in the 1930s and it seems odd that they should have missed completely a song as popular as this one was. It is possible that the song was in circulation, but only on the one or two prison farms they didn't visit. In any event, what matters is that the song does seem to have been around for a while and that inmates in the 1960s connected it with Warden MacAdams, "The Bear."

The song was widely known when I visited the Texas prisons. I recorded twelve versions performed by five different song leaders. ("Grizzly Bear," "Hammer Ring," and "Crooked-Foot John" (also known as "Lost John," not on this album) were the three most frequently heard crosscutting songs.)

The version heard here is really a ballad, quite rare in the convict worksongs; they are usually lyrics with occasionally related sequences of stanzas, but completely sequential and coherent texts are seldom heard. Richardson begins by singing "I wanna tell you a story," and he concludes, "That's a my story." He is not only singing a ballad, but is conscious enough of that to point it out in a frame for the narrative.

There is, for me, something approaching the epic mood in this text. His bear travels widely (all over the southwest Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and even north to Tennessee) killing stock and people, eluding trackers everywhere. When first trapped, the bear kills two men; he is captured in Tennessee and escapes again; he is caught somewhere else and put in a zoo, then escapes once more. Finally there comes "a little man... that been a-huntin' bears long time now," and by that man the bear is finally killed. Like Faulkner's bear, he cannot be killed by just anyone it requires a special person.

I wanna tell you a story 'bout a grizzly bear,

I wanna tell you a story 'bout a grizzly bear.

He was a great big grizzly, grizzly bear,

He was a great big grizzly, grizzly bear.

You know he laid a tracks like a grizzly bear,

He had a great big paws like a grizzly bear.

I said a grizzly, grizzly, grizzly bear,

Oh Lord have mercy, Grizzly bear.

You know they tracked him through a Texas now, grizzly bear,

He went down to Oklahoma now, grizzly bear.

You know the people tried to catch him now, grizzly bear

Because he was a-killing stock now, grizzly bear

I said a grizzly, grizzly, grizzly bear,

Well a Lord have mercy, grizzly bear.

You know 'way down in Louisiana now, grizzly bear,

He was a-runnin' in the swamp now, grizzly bear.

He was killin' every thing, grizzly bear,

He got a woman on a plain, grizzly bear.

You know the people got a-scared a the grizzly bear,

They wouldn't come out for fear of him, grizzly bear.

He stood ten feet tall like a grizzly bear,

He had a big bone paw like a grizzly bear.

I said a grizzly, grizzly, grizzly bear,

Oh Lord have mercy, grizzly bear.

You know we caught the big grizzly, grizzly bear,

You know he killed two men and he, grizzly bear.

They hemmed him up in Tennessee again, grizzly bear,

He didn't go nothin' but get loose again, grizzly bear.

He was a mean old grizzly, grizzly bear

He was a mean, mean grizzly, grizzly bear.

Oh grizzly, grizzly, grizzly bear,

Oh Lord have mercy, grizzly bear.

Well they finally caught him now, grizzly bear,

They tried to put him in the zoo and now, grizzly bear.

You know he knocked down a man and he, grizzly bear,

He tried to enter twelve times and he, grizzly bear.

He stood on his two feet and he, grizzly bear,

He growled all day long and he, grizzly bear.

But they had a little man and now, grizzly bear,

That been a-huntin' bears long time now, grizzly bear

Well a grizzly, grizzly, grizzly bear,

Oh well a-Lord have mercy, grizzly bear.

Well they finally caught old grizzly, grizzly bear,

Well they finally caught old grizzly, grizzly bear.

And they decided they would kill him, grizzly bear,

Because they couldn't do nothin' with him, grizzly bear.

Well you know they caught old grizzly, grizzly bear,

That's a my story, grizzly bear.

Glossary

Black Betty: Wagon or truck used to take men from the county jails to the prison farms.

bottom: fertile land near one of the rivers

Brazos: river on whose banks all the "lower farms" (Ramsey, Retrieve, Harlem, Darrington) are located

Bull: Bull Durham the cigarette tobacco the men are issued

butt-cut: the thickest cut on a felled tree

catch the train: join the chain (q.v.)

catch the hall: When a man commits an infraction of the prison rules he is told to "catch the hall" when he returns to the building that night, that is, wait to see the major for a summary trial

chain: any group of convicts being moved from one location to another

crackin': the noise a tree trunk makes as the tree is about to fall

crane wing: the long splinter raised by an axe when it hits a tree trunk at a bad angle when the men are logging

crane wing robber: crane wing

diamond: axe

dingdong: bell that on some of the farms rings the men out in the morning and after lunch

doggin': working

go my bail: speak up on my behalf

haming: working

hammer: axe

Hannah: the sun

jack: pause in the working

lay: from lay-in, permission to remain in the building during the day

lead row: first worker in a squad

pull-do: bad worker, clumsy worker

Rattler: name for the archetypal tracking hound; it is traditional still to name one hound on each prison Rattler

rider: guard on horseback

robber: see crane-wing robber

Rollin' it up here, boss: call telling the rider in charge of a squad that one is pausing to roll a cigarette

standing on the rail: a punishment the offender is made to stand for a number of hours atop a narrow wooden beam

tail row: last man in a work squad; he is often the second best worker in the squad his function is to keep the slower men in the middle from falling behind

tighten up: work more closely together

Bruce Jackson

Center for Studios in American Culture

State University of New York at Buffalo

Acknowledgements to: Bruce Jackson and Rounder Records

For rights and permissions contact: Rounder Records and Bruce Jackson

Contact Folkstreams about this material.

 

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