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Prison Songs

A collection of songs sung by Southern black prisoners. We hear field hollers and work songs, holdovers from the 19th century plantation system, sung throughout Southern penitentiaries to keep time with physical labor.

Bruce Jackson documents the life of prisoners before the end of convict field labor (and its accompanying brutality), the racial integration of the prisons, and the refusal on the part of younger prisoners to take part in what they saw as an Uncle Tom anachronism did in the tradition of prison songs, which was extinct by the early 1970s.

Bruce Jackson was the last in the uncrowded field of documentarians who recorded prison songs - with John A., Alan Lomax and Dr. Harry Oster among the few before him. His 1965 and 1966 recordings in Texas' Ramsey State Farm and Ellis Unit were issued as an LP, a book, and a film - all entitled Wake Up Dead Man. The only LP ever devoted to a single singer of this material was Takoma's 1966 issue of Ever Since I Have Been a Man Full Grown, sung by J. B. Smith. After meeting Smith, he wrote in 1972,
In the 11th year of a 45-year sentence for murder, which, because of his age, pretty much looked like life. He had been in prison three times previously on charges of burglary and robbery by assault... He was paroled in 1967, lived in Amarillo for awhile and did some preaching; I heard that he'd returned to the prison for a parole violation.

This show includes songs by: Ed Lewis, Floyd Batts, and J.B. Smith.


Goodbye Dear Old Stepstone


Traditional, folk, vernacular, endangered, and extinct music from America and elsewhere. Hosted by Nathan Salsburg, an archivist, producer, and writer based in Louisville, Kentucky.

He has worked for the The Alan Lomax Archive since 2000, for which he currently serves in the capacities of production manager, photo and video archivist, and general digital catalog editor. Salsburg maintains an index of online vernacular music resources at his blog,, contributes occasional music writing to the Louisville Eccentric Observer and the Other Music weekly update, and is curator of Twos & Fews, a vernacular music imprint in collaboration with Chicago's Drag City label.