It was Sunday, April 23, 1939, and it was a day of rest for the men clad in white in Otey, Texas. This was not going to be like any other Sunday at the Ramsey State Prison Farm, however. On this day a visitor drove up to the prison and had special clearance to talk to the black men. He also had permission to listen to and record the convicts sing their work songs. The visitor’s name was John Lomax—the “ballad hunter”—and he set about recording the songs used by the black Texas convicts in the fields about hoeing and flat weeding, felling timber with double-bladed axes, picking and chopping cotton, their dreams of freedom and far-off places, their hated bosses and tracker dogs, their girlfriends and wives, and their mothers. He recorded various songs sung by James “Iron Head” Baker (“My Pore Mother Keeps A-prayin for Me”), Wade “Monkey” Bolden, Mose “Clear Rock” Platt, W. S. “Jaybird” Harrison, Wallace “Big Stavin’ Chain” Chains, and Lightnin’ Washington.
Lomax, who was raised near Meridian, Texas, right where the 98th parallel passes through and divides Texas into two distinct geographical and cultural traditions, toured other southern prison farms in search of the “perfect ballad” or song untouched by the outside world. Yet the Texas prison farms of the 1930s, or any other decade, were not isolated completely from the outside world. The inmate world he encountered was shaped by what the felons brought with them into the farms and reworked to be useful in the tanks and hoe squads and turn rows. John Lomax was, among other things, a trailblazer, and he opened the Texas prison system to successive generations of researchers and outsiders in search of their own “perfect ballads.”
Bruce Jackson, Harvard-educated folklorist, picked up where Lomax left off. He recorded numerous African American convict work songs (some at the Ramsey State Prison Farm) in the 1960s and took many photographs of the convicts’ world as it teetered on the brink of the sea change examined in