R&B Odes From Jim Crow’s Jailhouse The tale of Tennessee State Penitentiary's songwriting "guests" gets its due

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

John Dougan (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 128 pages, including index and endnotes

I. The Myths of Rhythm and Blues

My father died in January 1953 at the age of 32. I had been born nine months earlier, and so my mother, at 24 was left a widow with three young children. In May of that year, Don Robey, the flamboyant owner of Duke/Peacock Records in Houston (and one of the few African-Americans in the wild, take-no-prisoners world of indie music making), decided it was time to release a new Rhythm and Blues record by one of his more popular crooners, Johnny Ace, born John Marshall Alexander, Jr. of Memphis, Tennessee. The 78 single was entitled “The Clock”—the A side—backed with an instrumental called “Ace’s Wild.” By July, it was the number one R & B record in the country, Ace’s third hit. It was sometime during the summer of 1953 that my mother brought this record and played it over and over. In retrospect, it seemed an odd record for my mother to buy at the time. All of Ace’s few hit recordings were ballads, usually sad and slow, and “The Clock” is absolutely gloomy, extremely sad at an extremely slow tempo: “I look at the face of the clock on the wall/And it doesn’t tell me nothing at all/The face of the clock just stares at me/ And tells me I’m lonely and always will be.” The bridge’s opening lines are: “I want to cry my heart out/Want my baby back with me.” (I heard the song so much as a toddler that I thought perhaps I had been born knowing it.) It seemed a song that would only make a bereaved widow feel worse. But my mother—an ardent R & B fan in her youth (I can’t recall hearing any other music as a small child, besides she was the target audience for it: urban, young, black woman) played this record a great deal even months and years after it faded from the charts.

When I was about three years old, probably not very long after Ace died, I accidentally broke this record. I had the habit, when my mother was not looking, of taking the big 78s she had stacked, and rolling them, one by one, on their edges, fascinated at seeing the remarkably colorful labels spin across the floor as if they were on a turntable. (Duke/Peacock’s label was orange.) Seventy-eights are heavy and fragile. One day, I wobbly rolled “The Clock” across the floor and it cracked when it hit the wall on the other side of the room. My mother became so angry when she learned of this; she gave me a severe spanking. I felt I deserved it (or I remember feeling this way as I grew older) as I did something she told me not to do and as I had done something that caused her such distress and unhappiness. She never bought the record again. It was around the age of five or six, when my mother first told me how upset she was about my having broken the Johnny Ace record that she told me about his death by Russian roulette. Ace died on Christmas Day 1954 in Houston between shows at the City Auditorium. He had bought a .22 handgun some months earlier and played with it incessantly, jokingly pointing it at band members and friends (much to their annoyance). Like a lot of young, restless men, he thought a pistol gave him a certain sense of power and perhaps even a kind of oddball excitement and meaning in a life that had descended into a crushing routine of one-nighters (black R & B artists did more one nighters at lower pay than any other professionals in the cutthroat pop music game), anonymous women (he had abandoned his teen wife and two children in Memphis), Jim Crow indignities, and whisky drinking. The gun gave him a thrill. On the night of his death, he pointed the gun, first, at his girlfriend, pulled the trigger and nothing happened. Then, in a moment of bravado, when someone else in the room told him to stop pointing the gun at other people, put the gun to his own temple and pulled the trigger, accidentally blowing his brains out, as he did not expect the gun to work or for the bullet to have been in that chamber. He was so shocked by what he had done, his hair turned completely straight, a la someone who had stuck his finger in an electric socket. Or so the account went. No one ever wants to die who loses at Russian roulette; the losers thought they could outsmart the gun and were themselves outsmarted. This story so stunned and horrified me as a child that Ace almost immediately ceased to be anything but some kind of ghostly and stylish monster who haunted me with his processed hair, silky baritone, and manly ignorance, a cautionary tale for a Negro boy in much the way that the Emmett Till murder was. He was 25 years old. My mother told this story because I was not supposed to become this type of man. It was the first myth I ever learned.

By the time I was 6 years old, my mother’s R&B was no longer simply music but an arena of hard drama, fast living, and harsh lessons that combined the imaginative crudity of folk tales or tabloid journalism with the grandeur of tragic heroism.

While all my mother’s 78s hypnotized me as a boy, there was one other record in particular that grabbed my attention. It was “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” by the Prisonaires, like Ace, also from Tennessee, but Nashville, not Memphis, although Memphis wound up playing a role in their story. The yellow Sun Record label, with its rays of sunlight, was even more attractive to me than the Duke/Peacock orange. I rolled this record too, not having learned much from breaking “The Clock” except to be more careful, at which I succeeded, since I did not break “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.” I liked the song very much and would often ask my mother to play it, which she did, anytime I wanted to hear it. “Just walkin’ in the rain/Gettin’ soaking wet/Tortured in my heart/By tryin’ to forget.” The bridge for the song was: “People come to their window/They always stare at me/Shakin’ their heads in sorrow/Sayin’ ‘Who can that fool be?’” I may have liked it because it was sad and slow, like Johnny Ace. My mother told me that the Prisonaires were actually a group of Negro men in prison somewhere in the South. She didn’t know where. Maybe they were on a chain gang. They were certainly in prison for life. They were permitted to leave prison to perform from time to time but were always surrounded by armed guards. In my child’s mind, I imagined the men in sweaty prison garb, stripped like zebras, bound by balls and chains, handcuffed to the microphone, with mean white guards pointing shotguns at their heads while they performed. This horrible vision seemed so at odds with the happy yellow record label but in keeping with the unhappy lyrics. My mother told me this story because I was not supposed to become like the men in the Prisonaires. By the time I was 6 years old, my mother’s R & B was no longer simply music but an arena of hard drama, fast living, and harsh lessons that combined the imaginative crudity of folk tales or tabloid journalism with the grandeur of tragic heroism. I loved the stuff and hated it too, was proud of it and ashamed. Songwriter/playwright Steve Earle was not quite right when he said “Prison has everything the free world has. There’s commerce in prison. There’s sex in prison. There’s love in prison. And there’s art.” Even as a boy I realized that the one thing prison doesn’t have that the free world does is freedom. The Prisonaires was the second myth I ever learned. It was more powerful than the Johnny Ace myth. The Prisonaires stayed in my mind much longer.

II. The Way of Some Flesh

In the main, my mother had it right about the Prisonaires, although truly nuanced accuracy is always in the details. John Dougan’s The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow provides the complete story of the group in a slim volume that will still feel to many readers overly long for its subject. Yes, the group was made up of African-American prisoners from the South. But the South is a grand generalization that masks a host of distinctions and variations. The men were all “guests” of the Tennessee State Penitentiary, which opened in 1831 and closed in 1992. Tennessee was not Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, or Texas. It is a border state with all the historical and cultural contradictions of such. It was and was not a confederate state during the Civil War. Nashville, where the story of the Prisonaires takes place as it is the city where the Tennessee State Penitentiary is located, and which is called The Athens of the South, has always been a bit like Atlanta, a slightly more liberal place in the virulently racist regime of Jim Crow. Nashville is the home of Fisk University, which during the 1950s, the time frame of the Prisonaires’ rise and demise, was arguably the most impressive and prestigious African-American college in the United States. (It produced a range of graduates from sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois and historian John Hope Franklin to historian David Levering Lewis, former secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, and author Nikki Giovanni.) Nashville is also the home of Meharry, the first black medical college in the South. If anything, the creation of the Prisonaires was part of a reformist penal movement, in keeping with at least one aspect of Nashville’s image as something like southern progressive, which contrasted sharply with its image of old Southern gentility and white Southern tradition.

In retrospect, everything seems destined. Nothing could have happened in any way other than the way it did. The men who made up the Prisonaires began their careers in the Tennessee penal system in the 1940s and early 1950s; all were between 18 and 26. Edward Lee Thurman (tenor) was imprisoned at 18 for first-degree murder. William Stewart (baritone, guitar) was sentenced to 99 years as the accessory to murder of a white man also at the age of 18. Robert Stanley Riley (co-writer of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”), a parole violator, was sentenced, at age 22, to 10-to-15 years in prison was theft and breaking and entering. James Edward “Drue Jr. (tenor) was imprisoned several times for theft. Marcel Sanders (Bass). Sanders was sentenced in 1951 to 1-to-5 years for involuntary manslaughter and parole violation when he killed his girlfriend’s ex-lover. These convictions had varying levels of legitimacy: black defendants were routinely told to plead guilty to charges regardless of whether they were, particularly any charges against whites. Many came from families that were poor, disorganized, and uneducated, easily intimidated by white authority that was culturally, economically, and politically bolstered by the Jim Crow-orientation of public and private institutions. Was what these men and their victims received justice or was it, as my mother vehemently put it when I was a boy, “nigger justice”?

The most prominent member of the group was John Henry Bragg (lead tenor, co-writer of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”) who was sentenced, at age 18, to 99 years in prison on six counts of rape. It was Bragg’s idea to form the group, convinced as he was that he had the talent to be a professional singer. (He was singularly charming, full of tales—true and apocryphal—and the only one of the group to have something like a sustained career in music after leaving prison.) In prison, performance was a way to pass the time and to get notice not only by the other prisoners but by prison authorities. A few special favors might come of it. Money might come from it as well as it was an established practice that professional musicians on the outside often bought songs from inmates. Music, particularly the success of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” and the belief in liberal reform in an era when Jim Crow was beginning to be courageously challenged in the South, led to the release of all of these men by 1959.

The other component of fate, in this instance, was boy wonder politician Frank Goad Clement who served as governor from 1953 to 1959, and also 1963 to 1967, running “on a platform of no new taxes and [calling] for improvements in health care, including mental health, welfare benefits, and education,” according to Dougan. A strong believer in prison reform and rehabilitation, Clement appointed James Edwards as the new prison warden, who instituted new policies that made it possible for the Prisonaires to make recordings, to leave prison for performances, and to be touted as examples of how humane treatment can reform prisoners. As Clement commented to the press when the song was released, “The Prisonaires represent the hopes of tomorrow rather than the mistakes of yesterday.” It was the 1950s and the smell of racial change was in the air. “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” recorded at Sam Phillips’s Sun Recording Studio in Memphis (amazingly, the inmates were permitted to travel from Nashville to Memphis to record), was released on July 8, 1953, less than a year before the Brown decision that desegregated American public schools. By the time of the December 1955 launch of the Montgomery bus boycott, four of the six original Prisonaires would be released from prison.

What also helped was that the song fit the popular black music of the day. It was a good, affecting, if modest, R & B tune in the era when R & B was changing American popular music. “The genesis of “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” writes Dougan, “was unremarkable: [Bragg] and Riley were on their way to work at the prison laundry and were, literally, walking in the rain when, according to [Bragg], both men started ‘wondering what the little girls are doing,’ and by the time they had finished their work detail they had worked out the song’s basic structure. (This was done by ear, as neither man could read or write music.)” It is estimated the record sold about 225,000 by November.

It was successfully covered by white pop singer Johnnie Ray in 1956, (white singers covering black R & B tunes was a common practice in the record industry in the 1950s), reaching number 2 on the Billboard charts. Ray thought the song “a piece of crap” but it was a hit for him, as Dougan tells us, when Ray desperately needed a hit. Columbia A and R man Mitch Miller made the song more bouncy and schmaltzy, which probably had much to do with it crossing over into the MOR (middle of the road), easy listening market. The arrangement may have also made the song “a piece of crap.” It depends on one’s taste.

Dougan does a good job of providing the story of the Prisonaires including a good account of Nashville, the penal system of Tennessee, the musical environments of Nashville and Memphis, and the general condition of blacks in pre- and post-war Nashville. Nonetheless, the book at times feels labored, especially the lengthy section critically interpreting the song. Perhaps this should not have been a book but rather a long essay or article but it is certainly useful, no matter its drawbacks, especially to readers interested in penal reform, race relations in the American South during the beginning of the end of Jim Crow, or in American popular music.