Sitting on a rock-hard bunk will put the fear of the Lord into anyone — especially when you’re behind bars, courtesy of Texas’ criminal justice system.
Nothing left to do but sing about it.
Music is the best escape hatch in prison that won’t get a convict into deeper trouble. A song and iron bars are as old as the Bible. In the book of Acts, Paul and Silas found themselves jails. So they prayed and sang as the other prisoners listened. Suddenly, a violent earthquake shook the prison doors open, and prisoners’ chains loosened.
Texas and Bell County have plenty of examples of prison and music, minus the earthquakes.
The Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum, 315 W. Ave. B, is currently exhibiting a photo display celebrating the 50th anniversary of a landmark event, “1968: A Folsom Redemption,” featuring singer/song writer Johnny Cash and his Folsom Prison concerts.
The traveling display will be on view until Aug. 10 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Featured is a collection of photographs and memories of two journalists lucky enough to be among a handful of eyewitnesses to the historic concerts behind bars which were a critical juncture in the career of Cash, one of the 20th century’s most beloved performers.
Just for the record, Cash never actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
“In January 1968, Johnny Cash was at a crossroads. His music career, in a slow decline for several years, was in need of a smash hit. He had recently straightened out his personal life, and leadership changes at his record label meant he was able to finally convince them of the merits of a live recording in a prison setting,” said museum curator Angela McCleaf. “This connection developed with prisoners during these concerts had made him increasingly sympathetic to those he would later call ‘the downtrodden.’”
When it came to musicianship behind bars, Bell County had its own special brand.
The Rev. J.L. “Sin Killer” Griffin, a black evangelist, served as chaplain to African-American inmates in the Texas prison system in the 1930s and traveled throughout Texas leading revivals in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Temple was one of his favorite stops, where both whites and blacks were welcome to worship together under the same tent. His preaching was part sing-song, part rapping, part preaching. However it’s defined, his brimstone-lobbing sermons were pure stagecraft. He started in a slow, low voice for about 15 minutes. Then after a few musical numbers, he returned again with rising crescendos until he had the crowd pleading for salvation.
In 1895, when he held a tent revival in Belton, the sheriff invited him to preach at the jail. “I keep a watch on the jailer for fear he’ll get too far away with the keys, but I think it’s right to preach to them people. … We must preach the truth. This is what I do.” No black man had been treated with such deference and respect, he added, describing his sojourn in Belton.
If musicians couldn’t go to prisons, the prison musicians found ways to entertain the public.
A favorite at the Central Texas Fair in the 1940s and 1950s was the eight-piece Goree All Girl String Band, one of the most popular all-female country and western groups in the nation.
The Goree Girls got their band name from Huntsville’s Goree Unit, which was Texas’ only women’s penitentiary at the time. The women prisoners, who were serving time for everything from murder to cattle rustling, spent their days at the Goree State Farm working in the fields, tending to the henhouse or sewing garments and bedding for the entire Huntsville prison system.
They became so popular that a Fort Worth radio station broadcast “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls,” a weekly program showcasing the stories and talents of prisoners in the Huntsville system. The Goree Girls also frequently played rodeos and fairs in Milam County.
During the Great Depression, male prisoners at the Eastham Unit, located in a section of unincorporated Houston County in east Texas, formed the Eastham Farm Prison Swingsters.
Whether they were talented musicians or popular because of their felonious reputations is not clear.
Like the prison rodeos that drew large, appreciative audiences, the incarcerated performers carried the message that they were not forgotten and that they still had a sense of humor about their situation. The crowds would applaud vigorously when they sang their most popular rendition of “Please Release Me.”
It was during this period, from April 1930 to May 1932, that Clyde Barrow, later ringleader of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde criminal gang, spent his first-ever period of incarceration for burglary and auto theft in Eastham. There was no proof he had any other talent besides robbing banks and killing.
Another popular prison music group was the Cotton Pickers’ Glee Club, a choir composed of African-American inmates who also sang at the Huntsville Prison Rodeo and performed as rodeo clowns.
A full-page story in the October 1921 issue of the Temple Daily Telegram extensively reported that inventor Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the phonograph and reputed “father of the music business,” was attempting to scientifically prove that music had the power to cure various diseases from cancer to dandruff. Similarly, it could also “cure” convicts of their aberrant behavior.
Whether singer Cash “cured” anyone at Folsom is uncertain. What is certain is that the prison crowd connected with the performers on a personal level. Notable for capturing Cash’s ability to connect with his audience, the recordings crackled with the excitement of an adoring crowd.
The photos on exhibit at the Railroad and Heritage Museum prove that.