Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow: The Story of the Prisonaires

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow: The Story of the Prisonaires

Article excerpt

The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow: The Story of the Prisonaires. By John Dougan. American Popular Music. (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 128. Paper, $22.95, ISBN 978-1-55849-969-0; cloth, $80.00, ISBN 978-1-55849-968-3.)

The story of the vocal quintet known as the Prisonaires is one of the most intriguing in southern music history. In 1953 five African American inmates of Nashvilles Tennessee State Penitentiary recorded two songs at Sun Studios in Memphis. Released on July 8, "Just Walkin in the Rain," the groups first single, sold over thirty thousand copies in six weeks, which made it one of Suns best sellers in the period before its Elvis Presley recordings. John Dougans The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow: The Story of the Prisonaires is an ambitious attempt to place the Prisonaires "brief career" and "unusual circumstances" into the greater cultural context of the pre--civil rights South (p. 7). The author, a former music journalist and a professor of popular music studies and music business, ultimately raises more questions than he successfully answers.

The Prisonaires, Dougan maintains, represent "what it means to create music in a hostile, controlled environment and the emotions so deeply embedded in a song--expressions of passion, dignity, and, ultimately, freedom" (p. 7). In addition, the author uses the Prisonaires to examine "the changing cultural geography and musical landscape of Nashville," justice and imprisonment in the Jim Crow South, the progressivism of Tennessee governor Frank G. Clement, and the re-recording of "Just Walkin in the Rain" by pop vocalist Johnnie Ray (p. 6). Dougan addresses each issue in thematic chapters to demonstrate that the Prisonaires story is "much more than weightless musical minutiae," but he fails to connect the topics with anything beyond the most superficial analysis (p. 5).

The book has several issues that will frustrate an academic audience. …

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