Friday, December 06, 2019

Greatest American prison songs a fine antidote to sappy seasonal fare

In Grits' household, the missus launches Christmas music rather aggressively beginning the day after Thanksgiving every year. This year, just one week in, Grits already longed for a break in genre.

Luckily, back in August on the Reasonably Suspicious podcast, Texas Monthly's Mike Hall and I came up with the perfect antidote, ranking the top 5 American prison songs of all time while discussing numerous candidates for that esteemed canon.

Go here for a YouTube playlist of all the songs we discussed before paring down the list. I discovered today it makes for an excellent antidote to the sappy songs of the season. Perhaps you'll enjoy it, too.

Though Mike and I might quibble over which deserves top billing (I'd say "Midnight Special," he prefers "Ain't no more cane ..."), our top agreed-upon five were:
  • Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos
  • Midnight Special
  • Folsom Prison Blues
  • Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
  • Jailhouse Rock
I pulled out that segment ranking the greatest American prison songs as a stand-alone, you can listen to it here:

Find a transcript of Mike's and my conversation below the jump:

Transcript: Scott Henson and Mike Hall rank the greatest American prison songs, excerpted from the August 2019 episode of the Reasonably Suspicious podcast

Amanda Marzullo: Now Scott continues his conversation with Texas Monthly's Michael Hall, this time taking on the task of ranking the greatest American prison songs. Michael is a longtime musician in Austin, most notably playing guitar for the Wild Seeds and has written on musical topics for Texas Monthly for many years. Here's what he and Scott had to say about how the greatest American prison songs stack up.

Scott Henson: Alright, I'm here with Mike Hall, executive editor at Texas Monthly, and we're here to talk about the greatest ever prison songs. Mike, thank you for joining me.

Michael Hall: Glad to be here Scott. I love talking about prison songs.

Scott Henson: Excellent. Mike, just to establish, your bona fides is the longtime guitarist for the Wild Seeds here in Austin in addition to being one of the best reporters on criminal justice topics in the state, and so I think is uniquely qualified. And I, by contrast, am probably not.

Michael Hall: I think being the observer that you are and the music fan you are, you have plenty of bona fides.

Scott Henson: Well let's find out. We're here to talk about the greatest, let's say greatest American prison songs. Because it did occur to me as soon as I started thinking of this, there's probably a lot of narcocorridos that are bad ass that we just are not qualified to latch onto-

Michael Hall: Absolutely.

Scott Henson: And some of their prison songs are simply amazing. But American prison songs, I think most people think that country and western music is just full of them. I was a little bit surprised when I began doing a little bit of research, that isn't entirely true. It's sort of a specialty of a few.

Michael Hall: Sure.

Scott Henson: Tell me, what do you think are sort of the ... before we start talking about the songs, what are the qualifications ... What should the qualifications be for the greatest American prison songs?

Michael Hall: That's a tough one, because one of the things that I love about some of these songs is a certain level of authenticity, that the people who were singing it were actually in prison. Some of these songs, you can at least imagine that you can hear the pain and heartache in their voices, which is great. But on the other hand, there are some great prison songs by people who did not do time in prison but still evoke what the listener might think of is the feeling of being in prison. So to me, it's a ... And there's plenty of points in between.

Scott Henson: Right. Right, and there's that great scene in that Johnny Cash biopic where his father says, "Well, everyone's going to think you've been to prison if you keep singing these songs."

Michael Hall: Exactly. But Johnny Cash went out of his way to sing to prisoners and had this kind of-

Scott Henson: That's right.

Michael Hall: This connection with them, but he-

Scott Henson: He earned it in other ways.

Michael Hall: He'd been in jail. I don't think he'd ever been in prison-

Scott Henson: That's right.

Michael Hall: But, so he's kind of in that kind of area in between. Merle Haggard, didn't he-

Scott Henson: Merle Haggard was in prison.

Michael Hall: He was actually in prison.

Scott Henson: Merle Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform in prison, and there's a great story he tells where, or told, where he finally got to meet Johnny Cash as a performer, and he said, "By the way, I heard you when you played at ..." whatever the prison was. And Johnny said, "Well Merle, I don't think you were there. That was so-and-so who opened for me." He said, "No, I was in the audience."

Michael Hall: Wow.

Scott Henson: That was-

Michael Hall: Yeah.

Scott Henson: So-

Michael Hall: So Merle has a couple of prison songs that, I don't know, when you know that about him, that just makes it, makes them that more meaningful I guess.

Scott Henson: Right. Well I put together a long list. I was way too lazy to cut it all down like you did. But I put in a top 30, and I think Merle had three of them-

Michael Hall: Yeah.

Scott Henson: So ...

Michael Hall: Yeah.

Scott Henson: So I think you're right. Authenticity, but at the same time, some of these were just so popular and made such an impact, just-

Michael Hall: Well, I think people really respond to the whole idea of being in prison, and there's something about ... I mean, look at The Shawshank Redemption, that movie, which is kind of a typical Hollywood movie but every time it's on, I'll watch it. There's something about that ... There's something about prisoners and prison that everybody can identify with and relate to, whether it's a wrongful conviction or just somebody who made a mistake. And a good prison song tugs at those emotional heartstrings.

Scott Henson: Tell me about your greatest hits list. Who should be on our top five?

Michael Hall: Alright, let me start with number one, because this to me is just one of my favorites. It's a Texas song, and it's got plenty of authenticity. And it's Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos, which was a song that was first recorded back in I believe 1933 by John Lomax of some prisoners in a Texas prison. And it's just an amazing song that they used to sing when they were out doing the work in the fields in this prison just off the Brazos River. And I don't know if he recorded it at the prison or after they had gotten out, but this is a song by prisoners about what they would do during the day while they're cutting down sugar cane.

Scott Henson: Well Lomax actually was recording in prisons. I actually didn't know until you mentioned this, that he'd recorded in Texas prisons. His most famous ones were in Louisiana, and another person who I think is on both of our lists, Lead Belly-

Michael Hall: Oh absolutely.

Scott Henson: Well his famous recording of Midnight Special with Lomax was actually done in Angola Prison, but-

Michael Hall: So his first one was done actually in prison?

Scott Henson: In-

Michael Hall: The first time he did that song?

Scott Henson: Well here's the story if you haven't heard it about Lead Belly in, and Midnight Special, because it's amazing. Lead Belly says that he wrote this song when he was in prison in Texas nearly 20 years earlier-

Michael Hall: At Sugar Land.

Scott Henson: That's right, at Sugar Land. And Governor Pat Neff was coming to the central unit in Sugar Land, and Lead Belly played his version of Midnight Special for him, including that wonderful last verse, "If you're ever in Houston, you better walk right," naming the sheriff and-

Michael Hall: Better not gamble, better not fight.

Scott Henson: That's right, that's right, naming the sheriff and calling him out. And Neff ended up pardoning Lead Belly over this. Well Lead Belly ended up committing another murder and going to prison in Louisiana, and that's where Lomax found him and recorded him in the 1930s. And then when Lead Belly got out, he went on to record 50 other blues songs, and some of those are some of the only examples we have of some particular 19th century work songs, came from Lead Belly in particular, but Lomax many, many more of them. That was a really ... And then we were also talking earlier about Pete Seeger doing the same thing in the '50s and going in ... I know he went into Texas prisons, and there are some amazing Texas prison work songs that didn't make my list, but probably should. They're unbelievable. These guys, he's recording them chopping down trees with axes, and you can hear the thump of the tree in between the chants. Just unbelievable. But I'm getting off track here. So we've got Midnight Special-

Michael Hall: No, I ... Well, Midnight Special's definitely on my list. I love I Shall Be Released, the Bob Dylan song. I just think-

Scott Henson: Just don't want to hear him sing it?

Michael Hall: I like his version of it, but the version that I love the most is Nina Simone's. She actually changes the chord structure a little bit, and it's makes it even more kind of, there's even more longing in the song, and then the way of course she sings it.

Scott Henson: Right, it's amazing-

Michael Hall: It's just phenomenal.

Scott Henson: I was just, it's, yeah.

Michael Hall: I mean, I love hearing Dylan sing, but Nina Simone kind of takes it to a different level.

Scott Henson: Right, right. Well, and Dylan's voice, he almost, the way he sings is almost designed to strip away ... "Okay, just listen to what I'm saying. Don't focus on the musicality." It's there, but focus on the message here. And she's so musical, and the musicality just oozes from everything she does. But all of the meaning really is deepened in her version, so I think you're dead on about the right version of that song.

Michael Hall: A kind of obvious one, but that doesn't make it any less perfect is Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, which I just, I love it. I love the whole structure of the song, the guitar riff. It's got one of Johnny Cash's favorite couplets, "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die." And the fact that he played it at that ... It got big at that live recording-

Scott Henson: That's right.

Michael Hall: Is just, I just love that.

Scott Henson: Well, and my podcast partner told me that if we didn't put that on the final list that our list was worthless, so I suppose that's required, although I can make the argument and I said this to you earlier, I can make the argument that that was the second best prison song on that album. Because if you had an audience meter in that prison yard where he played, or whatever the auditorium was, the cafeteria, wherever it was he was set up, and judged how well the audience reacted, the one that they reacted the biggest to by far was Cocaine Blues. "It was early one morning, I was making the rounds, took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down." And it goes all the way to his death sentence, and of course he's in Folsom Prison while he waits to die also in that one. There's a Folsom reference playing in front of them. But obviously in terms of broader popular love of the song and sort of in the pantheon of truly great prison songs, I think you're right. Folsom Prison Blues eclipses it-

Michael Hall: My band-

Scott Henson: But it is funny to listen to it on that album. The prisoners probably wouldn't have picked it. They probably would've picked the other one.

Michael Hall: We used to, my band the Wild Seeds, used to play that song whenever we had to do three set nights. We would always pull up covers, and that was always one of them, because it was so much fun to play.

Scott Henson: Outstanding.

Michael Hall: (mimics guitar riff)

Scott Henson: Yes, yes, Yes, I can hear him start it up just as you do that. Oh my God.

Michael Hall: And then my fifth one is kind of a guilty pleasure, and it's ... We were talking about authenticity. This is probably not the most authentic prison song, but Jailhouse Rock by Elvis is such a great song. I mean, and it's a great song for all kinds of reasons. I mean, the whole way that song is structured with the intro, which was just so cool ... and then just the guitar solo, the guitar sound, the way Elvis sings it. It's just this perfect little pop song that was written by two guys who probably never even went into a jail cell in their lives-

Scott Henson: Right, and they were writing-

Michael Hall: But Stoller-

Scott Henson: For a musical.

Michael Hall: They were writing it for Elvis's ... his ...

Scott Henson: His movie.

Michael Hall: Movie.

Scott Henson: Right.

Michael Hall: And then it comes out in that movie with all that choreography, and it's just, even though it's so Hollywood phony, it's so cool. I love that song.

Scott Henson: The choreography was amazing in that scene. I'll tell you, I wouldn't even think it should be considered for the top five if it weren't for that movie scene. The choreography in that scene was so amazing. And then the other thing that happens in that song and in that scene is of course, it's this great dance scene and this great dance number, and about halfway through the song you realize, "Wait, it's all men"-

Michael Hall: It's all men.

Scott Henson: And there's one line in the song that actually makes that explicit, and-

Michael Hall: "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see."

Scott Henson: That's right.

Michael Hall: Alright, alright.

Scott Henson: And so as far as super popular American songs, that's a pretty early reference there. So I definitely think the movie and the choreography in that scene made it one that definitely deserves consideration.

Michael Hall: The truth is, you can't just do prison songs that are downers. Prison is a terrible downer.

Scott Henson: That's right.

Michael Hall: I've never been in prison, but I can't imagine a worse downer. And yet, you've got to have some songs that are uppers.

Scott Henson: That's right, that's right. Well, I've said on my list of 30, because I was way too lazy to narrow it down to five until I started looking at it, but one of them I had on there was Merle Haggard's I Made the Prison Band. So there's things that happen that are not all downers. But I don't think that actually would make it into the five. It's a ... He, like I say, he has two others at least that would probably be ahead.

Michael Hall: Well yeah, Sing Me Back Home is a real downer, I mean-

Scott Henson: It's a real downer.

Michael Hall: In a lot of these songs, the guy is about to die.

Scott Henson: That's right. Well Mama Tried is probably the greatest of those three, and it's I guess a downer too. It's certainly got a jamming beat to it, but ... "I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole," that, oh, yikes.

Michael Hall: Yeah, that's a downer.

Scott Henson: That's a downer. So I'll grant you we need to find some upbeat ones, although that's a hard one, man. That's a tough, a tough call. Now you and I both are more likely to look at sort of the folk and blues. There are absolutely some hip hop tunes that are freaking bad ass and probably deserve serious consideration. I think the one that for me is the most impactful was Public Enemy's Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos. It opens with this absolutely amazing scene of this guy sitting in prison and getting his draft notice. And he says, "I learned something today when I got this notice from the government. They're a bunch of suckers." That's not a ... That's a paraphrase, but that's essentially the sentiment, and he goes, and the whole thing is a meditation with him sitting staring at this draft notice.

Michael Hall: That's great.

Scott Henson: And thinking about the role of the black man in America, and wow, it's just a heavy hitting, very impactful piece. Similarly, although incredibly dark again, but Ludacris's "Do Your Time. Don't let your time do you."

Michael Hall: Man.

Scott Henson: But-

Michael Hall: Great line.

Scott Henson: Great line, and became sort of really part of the popular culture, that line. One of them that, again, probably didn't get up to the top five, but Ice T's The Tower is quite a song from now, Jesus, 40 years ago, where he's walking into the prison yard for the first time and trying to figure out who has the power in the prison yard. Is it the white gang, is it the black gang, or is it the guards in the tower? But let's see, a few others that I had on here that probably are worth considering as we rank. Hurricane by Bob Dylan, you had mentioned you've wondered actually if Hurricane was actually innocent. To me, that was the greatest song ever written about an innocence case, and now you've totally dashed my-

Michael Hall: Well, see, I remember hearing that on the radio when I was a teenager, and for one thing, it was a long song. And so the fact that it was a long song, that it was a hit. But also, it was a prisoner song, and it's a great song-

Scott Henson: It really is.

Michael Hall: I mean, the melody of it, the way Dylan and his co-writer on that one put together this story, this long story with a great chorus, with the fiddle breaks on it. It's so cool. It's got all these memorable lines. But yes, a few years ago I actually went down this rabbit hole of, on the internet, from some people who said this was Dylan's worst song because in fact Hurricane Carter was guilty, guilty, guilty. I have no idea if he was or not, but I just remember thinking, "Okay, this is not one of those open shut cases."

Scott Henson: Right, right. Well, and I have not gone down that rabbit hole. It will greatly disappoint me if that turns out to be the case, but hey, that was a long, long time ago now and it's still a great song. Let's see, a few others I had on my list. One that you hadn't heard before but was The Warden by The Old Crow Medicine Show. Again-

Michael Hall: That's a cool-

Scott Henson: It's a cool song. It doesn't have the sort of great historical impact that we're looking for I think in the great American prison song. But boy, is that a good song. One you and I both remembered from the '70s was Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree. It's funny to think about that song now, that this song about a prisoner coming home ... "I'm coming home, I've done my time, and I've got to know what is and isn't mine." And-

Michael Hall: And it's a song that the songwriter wrote based on a true story, which kind of gives it a little bit of oomph.

Scott Henson: Gives it an authenticity push, it does.

Michael Hall: It's a corny song, but it-

Scott Henson: But the Tony Orlando and Dawn singing it gives it an authenticity decrease, but-

Michael Hall: It all evens out.

Scott Henson: That's right. Let's see, I would say Jimmie Rodgers In the Jailhouse Now in the country music world sure would be right up there.

Michael Hall: Sure.

Scott Henson: Also one that won't make the top five but that was a fine song by an ex-prisoner who was kind of a bad ass is David Allan Coe's Prisoner's Song. And he was quite a piece of work himself. Yeah, I think those are the ones I had that probably really justify the list. Oh, I ... Let's see, I Fought the Law was the other one that I thought, "Man, that's borderline, but wow, what a great song."

Michael Hall: It's another great pop song. Sonny Curtis wrote it, just ... I read where he described writing it. It was one of those songs that just popped out. And those are the best songs. He wrote it in five minutes just staring out at the West Texas landscape one day. He's breaking rocks in the hot sun and it came to him. "I fought the law, and the law won." I don't think Sonny Curtis ever did a day of time, but boy that song's great, and in particular as it's been covered by so many people over the years.

Scott Henson: Right, well it was recorded by The Crickets which gives it a great Texas connection. And then the version by The Clash to me took it from a really good song to a completely iconic song.

Michael Hall: Yeah, that made The Clash. I mean, that was their first huge hit.

Scott Henson: Is that right?

Michael Hall: Yeah.

Scott Henson: Well man, it absolutely just turned that into something that you ... was almost a national sentiment in many ways. So alright. Well with that presentation of our possibilities there, what are we think are in the top five? It seems like we've automatically got Midnight Special, Folsom Prison Blues are in both our top lists.

Michael Hall: Absolutely.

Scott Henson: What else do we think among these we've talked about? Your-

Michael Hall: For me, I would definitely put Ain't No More Cane on there, just because it is one of the earliest and ... I mean, you can't listen to that original version without feeling it. I mean, it's just an amazing song.

Scott Henson: It is an amazing-

Michael Hall: And it's very Texas.

Scott Henson: Well, if anyone detects a Texan bias on this podcast, you're tuning in for the first time clearly. Let's see-

Michael Hall: I mean, I had I Shall Be Released, which is ... I really like that song, but what pushes it over the edge is Nina Simone's version of it.

Scott Henson: I can see that. I think of the ones that I had been raising, I would actually, I really do think that Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos probably deserves to be on there, if only so we can have a little diversity-

Michael Hall: Absolutely.

Scott Henson: In the music genre. And let's see, if I were rounding out a top five, man, and your last one was Jailhouse Rock. Wow, that's both tough to argue and tough to agree with.
Michael Hall: Well, you might want to put a pop song on there and ... just kind of the opposite on the authenticity meter, but a song that would really draw people in. And if it wasn't that, maybe it is Chain Gang by Sam Cooke or-

Scott Henson: That's right-

Michael Hall: I don't know. I mean, and maybe it's I Fought the Law, which was originally written as a pop song.

Scott Henson: Exactly, exactly. Or actually, there's another, Back on the Chain Gang by The Pretenders went to a big thing on the-

Michael Hall: That's true.

Scott Henson: On the pop charts. I don't think it would get into the greatest prison song list, but it's funny that a few do.

Michael Hall: I think you could, I mean, on any of those, if you wanted to do ... sometimes you have to figure out not just diversity ... I mean, there are all kinds of diversity issues, and that's a pop diversity issue. So I think any one of those songs-

Scott Henson: Yeah, and-

Michael Hall: Is a great song.

Scott Henson: And of those, Elvis is just too iconic to ignore. I think you're probably right, the Jailhouse Rock has to be the final. And now with that pronouncement, I think the world can rest easy knowing that this ranking has been established, and-

Michael Hall: Top five.

Scott Henson: That the top five have been established. And actually, I will go through and make a YouTube playlist of all of the songs that we named here on the podcast today for anyone who's interested, and we'll publish that when we publish the podcast. So Mike, thanks a lot for talking with me.

Michael Hall: Thanks Scott. This has been great.

Scott Henson: It has.
Transcribed by Edited lightly for clarity and accuracy by Scott Henson.


Anonymous said...

There is also the absolutely best Christmas prison song - John Prine’s “Christmas In Prison.”

The search light in the big yard turns 'round with the gun
And spotlights the snowflakes like the dust in the sun
It's Christmas in prison there'll be music tonight
I'll probably get homesick, I love you, Good night.

Anonymous said...

Any list of prison songs that omits "Mama Tried" by Merle Haggard is suspect in my book!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Mama Tried" is on the play list and we discussed it in the podcast (also the Haggard songs "Sing me back home" and "I made the prison band"), it just didn't make our top 5. Harder to pare down that top 5 than you might think, there are a ton of good ones to choose from.

Good call on Prine's "Christmas in Prison," 6:27. I doubt it'd have made the top 5 cut, but it's an excellent song.

Gadfly said...

Not PRISON Xmas songs, but Bob Rivers "Twisted Christmas" collection will relieve you of normal Christmas carol bullshïte season.

Jim P said...

How about this one?

Anonymous said...

I always told people that my prison experience was just like Cool Hand Luke, if the soundtrack was done by Insane Clown Posse.

Anonymous said... (Sam Cooke-Chain Gang)