Metallic Pea

Frustrating People Since 1971.

The Elements of a Good Prison Song

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‘Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.’  ~ Hebrews 13:3

[NB: This is an old post that I thought I would dust off.  I hope you enjoy it.]

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the radio teemed with well-written songs about Life as seen from inside prison walls; when the world’s horizons stretched only from one side of a 12 x 12 foot cell to other. Such songs were able to elicit strong feelings which ranged from empathy and pity to a ‘Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time’ point of view. But alas, the days of the prison balladeer seem to have passed. To be sure, cacophonous ramblings depicting life on ‘defrow’ are in no short supply. Yet, there is a great difference (artistically as well as objectively) between the prison songs of yore and what passes for such to-day.

Conspicuously absent from the current offerings is any sense of a recognition or admission of having violated society’s mores or the rights of others. The hip-hop filth which passes as the nearest comparable product is little more than a method for ne’er-do-wells to boast of their sociopathic prowess. Coupled with the obvious lack of wordsmithery and imagery and the atrocious teeth-rattling hum which passes for melody, there is very little that even the most impartial observer can find redeeming in the modern counterpart of the classic prison song. There are several crucial elements that may be used in a myriad of combinations and permutations to form the quintessential prison song, which I will discuss below. Granted, not every good prison song contains them in full and many emphasise them in varying degrees (often starkly so). Likewise, this list is not exhaustive; I welcome suggestions and additions.

THE FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE

The most poignant of prison songs are those in which the central character (the convict) is ‘spoken’ of in the first person. The song may then be absorbed subconsciously by the listener as a confession or, better yet, as an admonition or warning. The listener is manipulated into a personal investment in the song by virtue of a sympathy (in many cases) felt for the wasted life and unfortunate circumstances of the singer. The detachment allowed to take hold through the use of the third person format results in a sense of reading about the event or person in the newspaper or hearing a friend recount a tale heard from a further removed source. The first person narrative allows for a certain degree of intimacy that is missing from the alternative.

THE DEGREE OF THE INFRACTION

In general, the crime committed by the central character should be of a serious nature. Few folks are interested in hearing about a man doing a stretch for failing to pay his taxes or for securities fraud. (Although ‘Cool Hand’ Luke’s crime may be an exception.) Murder and burglary are perennial favourites of the genre, though assault and battery appear not infrequently. The lion’s share of good prison songs (and I must again stress good) depict a man either on death row, en route to the gallows (in its various forms), or languishing within the bounds of a life sentence for taking the life of another. Examples include ‘Mama Tried’ by Merle Haggard:

And I turned twenty-one one in prison doing life without parole…

— ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ by Johnny Cash: I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

— ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ by Tom Jones:

I awake and look around me at four grey walls that surround me … Yes, they’ll all come to see me ‘neath the shade of that old oak tree as they lay me ‘neath the green, green grass of home.

 — ‘Sing Me Back Home’ by Merle Haggard:

The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom…

— ‘I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This’ made famous by Waylon Jennings: I’m at the bottom of the jailhouse now…

The examples above are but a fraction of those that prove the rule. Again, the best prison songs depict a man in a hopeless situation–the only way he’ll get out of prison is in a box (one way or another). In contrast, songs such as ‘Double Trouble’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd, while fantastic in their own right, do not possess the angst due to the nature of the crimes committed. In the instance of ‘DT,’ the fellow involved is doing a thirty-day stretch on the Pea Farm (county jail) for fighting. His assertion that it is ‘endless time’ notwithstanding, it packs none of the punch of a life sentence or impending capital punishment. The same can be said of ‘Wichita Jail’ by the Charlie Daniels Band. One can appreciate the burdens of the chain gang–making little’uns outta big’uns is not a position one generally desires to find himself. However, thirty days is just, well, thirty days. It most certainly is not holding down a cot in C Block for the duration of three concurrent life sentences.

REGRET

Again, the best prison songs evoke a significant amount of sympathy in the listener (or empathy under the ‘best’ of circumstances). In order to accomplish this admirable task, a certain degree of regret on behalf of the convict must be expressed. (It must be emphasised that regret is not synonymous with remorse; these are often polar opposites.) Expressing an understanding that one would be much better off having made different choices is not the same as a realisation that one has committed a grievous sin against God and feels badly for having violated society’s trust or harmed another person. (Feeling horrible for having committed a wrong is not the same as being sorry you got caught.)Few songs capture this regret like ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ Woven among the imagery of a life inside four grey walls and Time Stood Still is the realisation that he (the literary ‘he,’ as opposed to Cash himself) deserves his fate: I know I had it coming–I know I can’t be free.And there you have it, the best of both worlds in twelve words: regret and remorse. Much more unattractive, however, is the man who refuses to admit his misdeeds and, instead, places the blame on the correctional facility in which he finds himself as if it were at fault–the Prisoner As Martyr, as it were. This is brilliantly displayed in Mr Cash’s ‘San Quentin.’ (The live version sends a shudder down the spine as the actual convicts in the audience can be heard shouting in agreement.) 

THE UNHEEDED WARNING

Closely related to the above is the admission that the convict did not go unwarned. The regret is emphasised in this aspect to the point of utter frustration at having ignored the advice of others who predicted the (utterly predictable) result of such a lifestyle as that led by the pre-incarcerated convict. A Life Term is an eternity to ponder ‘I Told You So.’ The favourite vehicle to personify the unheeded warning is, more often than not, Mama. Freudian contrivances aside–and with all apologies to Oedipus–mamas have a tremendous influence on their sons (in a much different but nonetheless valuable way than fathers). For this reason–in addition to the special respect Southern boys have for them–Mama plays a pivotal role in warning the convict to straighten up and fly right–or pay the consequences. Merle Haggard deserves credit for the quintessential song in this regard: ‘Mama Tried.’ In fact, the point is made all the more by the fact that the entire song, as opposed to a verse or two, is dedicated to admitting that his mama spent his entire youth attempting to ‘steer him right’ to no avail. He ignored mama at his own peril, literally.  

The Hag tells the same story in ‘The Fugitive’:

I raised a lot of cane back in my younger days/ while Mama used to pray my crops would fail. Now I’m a wanted fugitive with just two ways/ outrun the Law or spend my life in jail.

We see the same willful disregard for wisdom in ‘Hand Me Down My Walking Cane’:

Oh, if I’d listened to what Momma said/ Oh, if I’d listened to what Momma said/ If I’d listened to what Momma said, I’d be home in a feather bed.

Likewise, in a less emphatic and somewhat passing way, Johnny Cash pays homage to the discarded words of wisdom from Mama:

When I was just a baby my mama told me, ‘Son, always be a good boy and don’t ever play with guns …’

We know the rest of the story. (As an aside, the Mama Warning is not unique to prison songs. The Cox Family’s ‘I Am Weary, Let Me Rest‘ featured on the soundtrack of ‘O, Brother, Where Art Thou?’ also recognises this most prevalent of proverbs:

Through the years you always loved me and my life you tried to save. But now I must slumber sweetly in a deep and holy grave.’

ART IMITATING LIFE

The best of the prison genre are those that have a grounding (at least in a small degree) in reality. There is something special about a man who has actually spent time in prison singing about the same; it lends a certain legitimacy to the song. For example, a cowboy song sung by a banker from New York hardly has the impact of one by a bull rider from West Texas. This is why Merle Haggard, David Allan Coe, Johnny Rodriguez, et al. are so successful and up to the task–I’ve been there, man. I know.

HUNG OUT TO DRY

For some unknown reason, it appears that the men in these songs cannot depend on their friends or loved ones in their moment of greatest need. Seemingly without exception, there is no-one available to post bond for them in order to gain their release until (we assume) they are called to stand trial. To wit:

— ‘Way Down Town‘ by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Doc Watson: Way down town, foolin’ around, took me to the jail. Oh, me and it’s oh, my–ain’t no-one to go my bail. 

— ‘In the Jailhouse Now’ by Soggy Bottom Boys: He got throwed in jail with nobody to go his bail… — ‘Trudy’ by the Charlie Daniels Band:

Call up Trudy on the telephone; send her a letter in the mail. Tell her I’m hung up in Dallas–they won’t let me out of this jail. (One assumes he wasted his one phone call and failed to alert Trudy to his predicament.)

— ‘Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ by Buck Owens:

Now, where was you last Saturday night while I was a-layin’ in jail? Walking the streets with another man–and no-one to go my bail.

— ‘Double Trouble’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd:

Eleven times I’ve been busted, eleven times I’ve been in jail. Some of the times I been there, nobody could go my bail.

— ‘My Last Ol’ Dollar’ from Ethel Park Richardson’s ‘American Mountain Songs’:

Oh Darlin’, won’t you go my bail? Oh Darlin’, won’t you go my bail? Won’t you go my bail, an’ get me out of jail? Oh Darlin’, won’t you go my bail?

— ‘Willie Warfield’:

I wrote my father a letter,’ Oh, come and go my bail.’ He sent me back an answer–he had no land for sale.

— ‘Hand Me Down My Walking Cane’:Oh, I got drunk and I landed in jail. Oh, I got drunk and I landed in jail. I got drunk and I landed in jail. Had nobody for to go my bail. Perhaps worse than having no one available or willing to go one’s bail is rotting away whilst no-one is even aware that you are in prison. Such is the case in ‘I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me’ by our favourite Balladeer of the Hoosgow, Merle Haggard. However, there is a caveat: the poor man in that song is a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam, as opposed to having been incarcerated for a breach of the penal code. (Serving time for having resisted the advance of the Red Horde is a far cry from being locked up for having knocked over a liquor store.) Likewise, innocence can add to the drama, as in ‘Long, Black Veil.’ (Though he is actually guilty of something–adultery.) 


HONOURABLE MENTIONS

— ‘When You’re Hot, You’re Hot’ by Jerry Reed. (Don’t go throwin’ dice with the fellas.)

— ‘A Week in a County Jail‘ by Tom T. Hall. (Hot baloney sandwiches? Flip the switch, man.)

— ‘Wichita Jail’ by the Charlie Daniels Band. (Hot Kansas sun, indeed. Try pouring concrete in Texas.)

— ‘Long-haired Redneck’ by David Allan Coe. (Long hair, tattoos, earrings. Yeah, we get it, you’re an outlaw.) — ‘Huntsville‘ by Merle Haggard. (David Crosby survived a stretch there in the 1980’s.)  

CONCLUSION There we have it, the primary ingredients to a good (as opposed to merely successful) prison song. The aspects discussed here are not the last word, nor do the examples given represent all available. I welcome any comments or observations and hope that the readers find it entertaining and thought-provoking if not informative. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. But if you do: write a good song about it.

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Written by ninepoundhammer

October 17, 2007 at 11:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. This was a very informative article! Thank you.

    Moses Gunn

    October 19, 2007 at 11:27 am


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