A follow up to a 2013 post “Um, Wrong Song,” in which we have a little fun with the confusion of songs with similar titles. For instance, a DJ would likely disappoint his audience if he played the wrong song, like for instance Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood” may have been a #1 hit when it was released in 1975 but most listeners would expect the song from Taylor Swift’s 1989.
The backing vocals on “Bad Blood” (the Sedaka one) are by Elton John, by the way. The single was released on John’s MCA subsidiary, the Rocket Record Company.
And if you were in a strip club (it’s okay, dear reader, we won’t tell) and the DJ accidentally played this version of “Cherry Pie,” it wouldn’t set quite the same mood as Warrant song. This version was recorded by Marvin and Johnny in 1954.
There are so many various songs with a ‘rolling stone’ theme, but this 1955 cover by the Fontaine Sisters (the original was recorded by the Marigolds) is not the first to come to mind.
The 1950 song by Muddy Waters, which he based on a 20s tune called “Catfish Blues,” is the presumed namesake for both the music magazine and the band.
Sound 80 founder, Herb Pilhofer is pictured at left on the back of his LP, Olympus One. In addition to showcasing the studio’s capabilities, like the flexi disc which appeared in yesterday’s post, his records had really awesome arrangements and performances from local musicians.
This first album in our continued survey of recordings from the famous studio which was located here in our neighborhood is also an instrumental record, but its a smaller group. Pianist Tom Prin is still playing here in Minnesota but from its exclusion from the discography on his website (here) we suppose this album may be his first.
Two for the Road features Prin’s trio, with singer Penny Perkins joining them for a few tracks. The selections are all standards and the playing in the Oscar Peterson Trio vibe. The album was released on Sound 80’s own label.
If you’re interested in Blood on the Tracks, which includes the most famous recordings from Sound 80, we recommend reading this fantastic book co-authored by Kevin Odegard. A Simple Twist of Fate tells the story of how Dylan came to re-record a number of the songs from his classic 1975 album here in Minneapolis, and also how the performers on those sessions were never credited on the record, which has sold more than two million copies. Kevin was kind enough to give us a copy of the book some time ago, which we later loaned to an employee at Orfield Laboratory and sadly never saw again! We suppose if its going to end up somewhere that’s the appropriate place.
And of course there is this legendary oddity from the Sound 80 story, an album which was all but lost until it was reissued in 2013. Our own Dave wrote a story for City Pages about the reissue of The Lewis Connection, talking to Pierre Lewis about how most copies of the album were accidentally thrown away along with the master tapes (Numero Group’s reissue of the record was taken from Pierre’s last sealed copy). People still joke the band was so broke they couldn’t afford two N’s and that’s why their name is misspelled on the cover.
Collectors prize copies of The Lewis Connection because “Got to be Something There” features the first appearance of Prince on LP, although the highlight of the track is his future sideman Sonny Thompson, who wrote the song and sang lead. It was recorded at Sound 80 by an earlier version of the band, the Family (not to be confused with Prince’s later side project of the same name). The balance of the album was produced at other studios, like Chris Moon’s MoonSound down on 57th and Stevens — the songs written and arranged by Andre and Pierre Lewis are exceptional modern Minnesota soul, fortunately saved from obscurity by the reissue.
So many different kinds of music were being recorded inside the Sound 80 studio — for instance, the album often citing for sparking the Twin Cities punk rock scene, The Suicide Commandos Make A Record, was produced in the studio in 1977. Although their original run was brief, the Suicide Commandos inspired
It’s original release on Blank Records was hardly a big seller, but the album has since been reissued on CD by Mercury Records. The Suicide Commandos have reunited in recent years, performing benefits shows, busking outside the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, and releasing a 10″ split record with the Hold Steady produced by Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current. The band has also adopted a 1.5 mile stretch of highway in Minnetonka.
We’ll leave it to the more serious archivists to figure out what was the last recording made in the Sound 80 studio before the building’s dormancy and eventual resurrection as a renowned research facility. To close out our collection of interesting recordings produced there we have chosen the sometimes maligned second album by Willie and the Bees, Out of the Woods. Hymie’s may have contributed to the under-appreciation of this album, having once found at Ax-Man Surplus a big box of unopened copies and slowly selling them over several years for five bucks a piece. Sure, Out of the Woods is not as good as Honey from the Bee, but its hardly fair to compare any album to the Bee’s debut.
We have something really funny planned for tomorrow’s post here at Hymie’s central, but we’re sure to re-visit the recordings from Sound 80 in the future. These past two collections of interesting records are only a small sampling, and we’ll keep recording a track and taking a picture of others as they turn up here in the record shop. As always, thanks for reading!
Hymie’s Records sponsored a customer tour of Orfield Labs in May 2012. Why did we invite our customers to tour a research facility in our neighborhood? Because the building was once home to the Sound 80 recording studio, which had a long history on the cutting edge of the industry.
Today, Orfield Labs is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records because its anechoic chamber is the “Quietest Place on Earth” at -13 decibels (you can read more about it here). We’ve stood in that room with others, and its a surreal experience. The building is also noted because Sound 80 was the earliest digital recording studio in the world. In fact, it is believed that the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s magnificent recording of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the album by jazz group Flim and the BBs were the first digital recordings to be released commercially. The SPCO album earned a well-deserved Grammy. We featured that album in a post you can find here. These recordings were just a few of the many made in the Sound 80 studio.
The SPCO made a second recording at Sound 80 which is not as famous, but nearly as enjoyable. Our copy is, unfortunately, pretty played. Still, in the selection below you can get a sense of both the studio’s potential and the SPCO’s talent. Like the Appalachian Spring album, their recording of Franz Schubert’s fifth symphony was made direct-to-disc, meaning the analogue lacquer was being cut as they performed. Records like this were popular with audiophiles in the late seventies and early eighties because it was believed that bypassing tape produced a cleaner reproduction of the performance. Relatively few classical records were made in this form, and we think the SPCO’s is one of the best.
Sound 80 still exists today, but the company is located in the 41-floor Campbell Mithum Tower downtown (its the one which comes to a triangular peak). According to their website, most of their work today is in the advertising industry, for which co-founder Herb Pilhofer did all kinds of work during his career.
Today and tomorrow we thought we’d listen to some tracks from the enormous variety of records we’ve seen over thee years with Sound 80 credits on the jacket.
The back of this first album by James Strilich tells us the singer “introduced this recording selection during an engagement at the Belle Aire Yacht Club on Lake Minnetonka,” and the collection of covers sounds like the sort of songs you’d hear in a yacht club lounge. We’ve always had a soft spot for albums of popular standards by amateur lounge acts, and this one has its highlights. Strilich’s delivers Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read my Mind” with a rich tenor over a vaguely ominous keyboard and cordovox backing. Other tracks touch on bossa nova and other seventies lounge standards like “For the Good Times.”
Herb Pilhofer produced the 1973 album Carry It On by Tom Johnson and Guy Drake, which features a large group. The album includes a seven-piece horn section and a ten-piece string section. Pilhofer himself performs electric piano on the album.
Pilhoffer’s own records reflect the same high level of production quality, as well as memorable arrangements. This promotional soundsheet included a “thanks” to Johnson & Drake, so its may have come from the same recording session. The record was actually a promotion for Eva-Tone, who made the flexi-discs down in Deerfield, Illinois, featuring tunes written and arranged by Pilhoffer. The other side explains how you can promote your music or business with similar soundsheets.
Also appearing on Carry It On are bassist Billy Peterson and drummer Bill Berg, who were the house rhythm section at Sound 80. The two were also founding members of Natural Life.
We first featured the awesome fusion band here in a post of privately-pressed jazz albums from Minnesota. Their three albums (an an early solo record by tenor Robert Rockwell called Androids) are very difficult to track down, even here in the Twin Cities, and even more difficult to find in nice shape. People liked them so much they wore out their copies!
This is probably as good a time as any to point out that we don’t have all these records in stock at your friendly neighborhood record shop at this time. As they turn up, we have recorded them and taken a picture to share here on the blog. Some are not in particularly high demand (nothing personal, Mr. Strilich) and others — like this album by McDonald & Sherby — sell for big bucks to serious collectors.
Another album collectors have asked us about since we first posted it is the first of two featuring Gyp Fox. The bluesy, Dead-ish First Rays appeared in 1978, and on the back notes the band was from Winona. It was recorded at Bob Behr’s “studio” (which suggests maybe it was his house) but mastered at Sound 80. A second album by Fox, Ghost Dance, is more polished and professional sounding, still with a Winona address for the band’s management. This track called “Gettin’ Keyed” from First Rays was one of the highlights.
The SPCO’s famous recording of Appalachian Spring is often said to have been the first commercially sold digitally recorded album, but it was in fact made at the same time as this jazz record by Flim and the BBs. An interesting aspect of the legacy of these early digital albums is that because the experimental machine used to record them was disassembled in the late 70s, there is no way to produce a proper reissue of them.
Jimmy Johnson, nicknamed Flim, was backed by pianist Bill Barber and Sound 80 veteran Bill Berg (the BBs of the group’s name). While a popular local group composed of successful session musicians, the band is best known for the unique nature of their first two releases. Their self-titled album was intended to be another direct-to-disc production, but the acetate disc produced from the session turned out poorly, and they released the back-up recording, made on the same 50.4 kHz digital processor used for the SPCO recording, in its place. This made their album noteworthy as only the second ever commercial digital recording. Flim and the BBs later recorded their second album in the studio as well. Tricycle became the first non-classical compact disc to be released. Both these sessions were produced by Sound 80s chief engineer, Tom Jung.
This seems like a good place to leave our survey of Sound 80 records for today. In tomorrow’s post we’ll hear Prince’s first appearance on an LP, and some great tunes by the Suicide Commandos and Willie and the Bees. And of course we’ll also hear many of these musicians back up some folk singer from Hibbing, who has been meaning to get around to crediting them on his album Blood on the Tracks for forty years or so.
Today we thought we’d look at a few potential cases of mistaken identity, such as pianist Dr. John Harris over there, who could be mistaken for Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, ie Dr. John.
And Little Stevie Kelton must have been hoping some people wouldn’t look too closely at the label for his 45. He covers “Okie from Muskogee” on one side, which is a song we can safely assume Stevie Wonder has never sung. On the side above we hear “Mr. Winter,” which was written by the awesome-ly named Don McCool.
This next guy had a little fun with the confusion caused by his name. Ray Charles wrote and arranged for Perry Como, briefly worked on The Muppet Show, and had a healthy stack of top-selling albums leading The Ray Charles Singers (helping invent easy listening along the way), but he still jokingly billed himself as “The Other Ray Charles,” as on this 1968 album of film favorites.
We have posted The Ray Charles Singers in the past (here) because he wrote and arranged a great theme for the City of Minneapolis. Charles actually worked with Ray Charles, the Georgia-born piano player who pioneered soul music, on several occasions. And neither were actually born Ray Charles.
Steve Millar recorded parts of his album I Want Your Love at the former Sound 80 studio here in our neighborhood, and also at Cookhouse Studio here in Minneapolis. He also made a second album with his backing group Diamondhead. This copy had an autograph!
Another record with a ‘local connection’ of sorts is this 50s R&B single by the Jayhawks. Of course it couldn’t be the Twin Cities’ own Jayhawks because they didn’t make their first record until 1986. The Jayhawks on this 45 recorded “Stranded in the Jungle” thirty years earlier.
And last for today we have guitarist Robert Johnson, who is of no relation to the enigmatic blues performer whose influence cannot be overstated. This Robert Johnson already had a pretty impressive resume by the time he recorded Close Personal Friend, his debut album. As a Stax Records session regular, he performed on records such as Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul and Luther Ingram’s huge hit “If Loving You is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right.” Johnson also auditioned for the Rolling Stones after Mick Taylor left the band, and toured with John Entwistle of the Who and Ann Peebles. Close Personal Friend was released in 1978 and features some catchy new wave oriented pop.
Bob Dylan has drawn a lot of criticism for his decision to sit out the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm next week. Just today it was reported he also sat out a meeting with President Obama and other American laureates.
One can never predict what Bob Dylan is going to do, which has endeared him to some fans and alienated him from others. Whether its a a Christmas album (which we will enthusiastically defend) or an album of Frank Sinatra songs (which even we can’t get behind), Dylan has long had the luxury of following his muse and allowing his records to largely speak for themselves.
Consider his original Greatest Hits package, released by Columbia in 1967 to fill the gap when it appeared his next album was a ways off on the horizon and presumably compiled without his involvement. While it is not one of those “Greatest Hits” collections which misuses the word hits — his sixties singles sold successfully — it was still frustrating to fans. While it compiled his singles, in cases where those contained a separate mix from the album version, the album version was used. And it retailed for a dollar more than most LPs at the time.
Greatest Hits Volume II, which came just four years later, offered a little more to fans in the form of a side’s worth of new material. Dylan originally suggested one side be drawn from the then-unissued “Basement Tapes,” but this was rejected by Columbia executive Clive Davis — and instead a hodge podge new songs were added to the double LP. These included the tracks produced by the late Leon Russell (“Watching the River Flow” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece”) as well as a live cut from the 1963 Town Hall concert and three newly recorded songs.
This is the first “Greatest Hits” album we can think of which finds the artist enticing fans with a few new songs. Dylan’s business savvy is always surprising to us — and in this case he created an idea that became common by the time Columbia finally churned out Greatest Hits Volume III in 1994, including a successful new song, “Dignity.”
We’ve thought a lot about some of those songs added to “Greatest Hits” and “Best Of” records, because sometimes we are such big fans of the artists that we’ll buy an album even though 90% of it is already in our collection. For instance, Gil Scott-Heron’s topical “Re Ron,” which first appeared on a 1984 compilation. His picture is hardly flattering on The Best of Gil Scott-Heron, and its hard for fans to face the reality of how poorly he was doing at the time.
“Re Ron,” Scott-Heron’s response to Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign, would be one of the last songs he’d release for nearly a decade, as drug use derailed his life. A sequel to his first Reagan song, “B Movie,” it didn’t leave the same impression with fans and he was subsequently dropped from the label.
From an entirely different era and an entirely different section of the record store are the two Best Of albums released by Jethro Tull in the 70s. Each adds a new song, which sound distinctly like outtakes from earlier albums. Neither is particularly essential, although Tull fans are not unlike Dylan fans in their complete-ist tendencies. The first also offers an alternate mix or edit of a couple songs, notably “Aqualung” where Martin Barre’s familiar opening riff is extended.
The second of these is one of the most un-necessary “Best Of” collections of all time, and is indulgent even by Jethro Tull standards. The new track offered for the faithful is an outtake from the band’s successful War Child album which was clearly left aside for a reason.
Faring little better is The Best of the Band, an early album in the trend of titling these collections carefully to avoid the word “Hits.” After all, The Band’s singles hardly charted, and several of these songs were not even released as singles in the United States. The album is still a fair representation of highlights from their first half dozen albums, with the exception of a single-only track, “Twilight.”
Another collection clearly forced by the label was RCA’s Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. Never a hit-maker, Reed had already been dropped by the label by the time this record sulked into stores in 1976. Essentially a vehicle for the title track, Walk on the Wild Side did offer the first LP release of “Nowhere At All,” a rockin’ outtake from Coney Island Baby which had previously been issued as a B-side. Also worth noting is the appearance of Rachel, Reed’s long-term transexual lover, on the cover. Rachel was the inspiration for much of Reed’s music in the second half of the seventies even though she had been all but erased from the rock and roll lexicon by the time she died in obscurity in the nineties.
So far we have established that the extra song on a “Greatest Hits” or “Best Of” album is a sort of ashcan for outtakes and leftover live cuts. A recent culling of our own collection turned up all the albums in today’s post, each of which purchased solely for those added ‘bonus’ tracks, but hardly ever taken off the shelves. We’ll end today’s post with a more successful example. It’s a Greatest Hits which recently saw its first US release on LP and has already sold out.
See, nobody drew such success out of the extra song on their Greatest Hits album than Tom Petty, who recorded “Last Dance with Mary Jane” while recording his second solo album with career-reviving producer Rick Rubin. The song was the last to be recorded by the original Heartbreakers lineup, and an unexpected hit. It almost certainly spurred the success of that fantastic solo album, Wildflowers, the following year.
Always one to create the creepiest possible videos, Petty outdid himself with “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” a macabre vignette purportedly based on a French film which was, in turn, based on a Charles Bukowski story. If you have never seen this video before, you’re likely to not feel the same about Tom Petty, or about actress Kim Basinger, ever again.
The Doors’ second record is an outcast’s album like no other. Successful as they may have been by the time Strange Days was released in the fall of 1967, they remained industry outsiders and almost inevitably doomed by their own internal anxieties and fears. One of the two explicitly “strange” side openers, “People Are Strange” was a successful single and is still widely assumed to reference a bad acid trip.
Drummer John Densmore (the outsider within a group of outsiders) discredited this claim in Riders on the Storm, his book published in the wake of the band’s bio-pic fueled revival. He describes the song as derived from Morrison’s depression, and inspired by a sunset over Laurel Canyon rather than LSD. The music, arranged by guitarist Robbie Krieger, encapsulates the Doors’ fascination with cabaret, a theme which was carried over onto the album’s jacket, which depicts dwarves, acrobats, musclemen and other performance artists on the periphery of society.
Where the song “I’m A Stranger Here” finds its home is, fittingly, unknown. What is certain is that it in the sixties it inspired Bob Dylan, in “She Belongs to Me,” and Taj Mahal, who derived “She Caught the Katy” from it to open his essential second album, The Natch’l Blues.
One of the great, often unsung, heroes of American music is Dorothy Love Coates, whose work as the lead of the Gospel Harmonettes had an undeniable influence on the style of early rhythm and blues and rock and roll recordings. Coates never performed secular music and was outspoken in her advocacy for civil rights and opposition to war, pushing her further from mainstream recognition.
“Strange Man” was a song Coates wrote after her career had become deeply entwined with the civil rights movement. This late 60s single is truly a family affair. Her brother, Fred McGriff, produced the recording and Coates, as pianist, is joined by her daughter Carletta Coates-Criss who plays the tambourine. The song recounts Jesus’ encounter with the Sumaritan woman at the well, as recounted in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John.
In the eastern orthodox tradition, the woman at the well (there known by her baptismal name Photini) is regarded as a Saint, and held as highly as the apostles for her proselytizing of the Savior’s message. Taking the perspective of an outsider, Coates’ song is set in the subversive world of the early Christian faith, almost entirely unrecognizable today but long overdue for a revival.
The song is out of print, but we found it on this collection of classic gospel music released by Columbia Records in the 70s. The label’s longstanding ownership of Okeh Records has provided access to a variety of outsider music, and collections such as this are a valuable resource to music lovers of all stripes.
The United States makes up about five percent of the world population, but more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners. There is no precedent for the extraordinary increase in incarceration in our country, and its consequences could be catastrophic. An absolutely alarming article published by The Atlantic Monthly last year detailed the devastation our mass incarceration has brought on African American families, where prison life is increasingly becoming ubiquitous. One in four black men born after 1970 will, by his thirties, have been imprisoned in this country.
The prison industrial complex is essentially hidden, as far as affluent Americans are concerned. You might be surprised to learn that last year President Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison. Clearly we don’t want to see what’s going on, or even hear about it. In spite of the success of prison-set television programs like Orange is the New Black, the omnipresence of bars in the lives of America’s disenfranchised hardly appears in our pop music these days. This wasn’t always the case.
It seems likely that when we suggest the subject of prison records, you’ll expect us to post a song from Johnny Cash’s two live albums, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. They’re classic country albums and all, but we could never take Johnny’s prison persona as seriously as he seemed to himself — the closest Cash came to doing time in the sixties was waiting for his meth dealer.
After Merle Haggard passed away earlier this year, each obituary (including ours) mentioned that he was inspired to join a prison band after seeing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin on January 1st, 1958. Haggard was no stranger to prison, having done a couple stretches before he was arrested in Bakersfield after attempting to rob a roadhouse. An escape attempt at the Bakersfield jail earned him a trip to San Quentin, but it wasn’t Cash’s performances which really set him on the path to redemption. It was an encounter with Caryl Chessman, known for his 1954 memoir Cell 2455, Death Row.
Chessman’s case captivated the push to abolish capital punishment in the United States, at a time when most other western nations were moving towards abandoning it. Ronnie Hawkins even recorded a song about Chessman in 1960, just a few months before he was executed at San Quentin.
Merle Haggard wrote a number of songs about his experiences, and was rightly remembered for how honestly he captured the trials and troubles of the disenfranchised. His story is inspiring, as are many stories which come from prisons. It’s no accident that two of the most significant works of American literature — Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail — were both written behind bars. Our interest today, then, isn’t songs like Merle’s “Mama Tried,” which are about prison, but rather records which were actually recorded by prisoners.
The first of these is Any Woman’s Blues, which was recorded on New Years Eve 1975 at the Women’s Jail in San Bruno, California. It’s a pretty remarkable record, although not a perfect fit for our purpose today because in addition to former prisoners, the performances on Any Woman’s Blues include professional musicians as well. Several of the women who founded and recorded for Olivia Records appear, notably Cris Williamson, Linda Tui Tillery and Holly Near. The lesbian-oriented label was on of the most successful independents of the seventies.
The album was released by the Women’s Prison Concert Collective, which was supported by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Their commitment to improving the lives of incarcerated women is evident in the album’s insert, which includes a list of things one can do to help and where you can find more information.
Incidentally, here in Minnesota one thing you can do is support the Women’s Prison Book Project. It may not seem like much to provide reading material, but it often provides an important resource for an even more marginalized population. There are more than 150,000 owmen in prison and jail in the United Sates, and eighty percent of them are serving time for non-violent crimes. Of the remaining, most were convicted for defending themselves or their children from abuse. More than half of the women in prison are women of color, and two thirds of them have one or more children under the age of eighteen. According to their website, “the WPBP works to support prisoners; and through that solidarity works to empower prisoners themselves and build connections through prison walls.”
We remember accepting donations to their program when we volunteered at the now-closed Arise Bookstore. Today you can contact them through Boneshaker Books, a really great place just up in Seward not far from our shop.
That first song from Any Woman’s Blues is written and sung by Gwen Avery. Her signature song, “Sugar Mama,” appeared on Olivia Records’ Lesbian Concentrate compilation and she toured with Tillery and Mary Watkins, but she did not make an album of her own until almost twenty-five years later.
This second selection from Any Woman’s Blues is poetry read by Pat Parker. One of the poems is particularly moving, as it is written about her older sister, who died at the hands of an abusive husband. “Womanslaughter” protests the one-year sentence her sister’s killer received, remarking with scorn that “men cannot kill their wives / they passion them to death.”
This next record is by Glen Shirley, who had no idea he was to become a famous country songwriter as he sat in the front row of Johnny Cash’s famous performance at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. Cash explained what happened without Shirley’s knowledge in a 1994 Life magazine interview:
The night before I was going to record at Folsom prison, I got to the motel and a preacher friend of mine brought me a tape of a song called ‘Greystone Chapel.’ He said a convict had written it about the chapel at Folsom. I listened to it one time and I said, ‘I’ve got to do this in the show tomorrow.’ So I stayed up and learned it, and the next day the preacher had him in the front row. I announced, ‘This song was written by Glen Sherley.’ It was a terrible, terrible thing to point him out among all those cons, but I didn’t think about that then. Everybody just had a fit, screaming and carrying on.
The memorable closing track on Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison put Shirley on the country music map, and later a hit recording of his song “Portrait of my Woman” by Eddy Arnold helped propel his career further, even though he was still incarcerated for a failed armed robbery. He recorded an album at Folsom Prison for Mega Records in 1971, and was released later that year.
Cash met him at the gate, and invited him to join his House of Cash organization as an opening performer and songwriter. Shirley hosted the performances in the documentary Flowers Out of Place, which featured Cash, Roy Clark and Linda Ronstadt. His behavior, which included violent threats, concerned Cash’s crew, and he was eventually fired.
Shirley was working for a cattle company in May 1978 when he shot a man in a drug-fueled rage. Two days later he took his own life in his brother’s house in Gonzalez, California. Cash paid for the funeral expenses, but effectively ended his involvement in prison reform after Shirley’s death, and never performed for prisoners again.
Perhaps the most popular prison recording of all time was made by John Lomax and his son Alan on a portable aluminum disc machine on loan from the Library of Congress. At Angola State Prison the folklorists found Huddie Ledbetter, later known nationwide as Lead Belly, who made a number of recordings for them during his time for an attempted murder.
It is believed by some that a recording Lead Belly made in prison, delivered to the Governor by the Lomaxes, hastened his early release, but records show he was already eligible because of good behavior. The most famous of the songs he recorded for the Library of Congress was one he’d been singing for more than twenty years, “Goodnight Irene.” This song is, of course, where the record shop’s li’l Boston Terrier Irene gets her name.
This last record, Ain’t Got Time to Lose, features blues, folk and country songs written and performed by inmates and former inmates of the Oklahoma Correctional System in 1980. Leo Chandler, who served as production director as well as performing one of the songs on the album, describes the project in its liner notes:
For years Institution Programs Incorporated has developed and conducted arts based programs within the framework of the Oklahoma Prison System. Because of financial limitations, these programs have not reached all eligible inmates. The idea of a convict album was conceived to share the talent that has existed inside the prison.
It was not an easy task to arrange for security to transport men and women from different institutions across the state to a recording studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to finalize the project. Yet, with the extra effort and cooperation of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, it happened!
All income generated by this album, except for production costs, will go to the expansion of the prison arts programs. These programs offer projects in visual art, literature, drama, music, design and continuing humanities dialogues.
Creativity can be developed through discipline, and I feel that discovering one’s own potential brings self-esteem. This album is an entertainment package and consists of more than one style of music. It is comprised of the stories, joys, the sadness and frustration, triumph and humor of people in prison. It is a sincere attempt for these people to financially support their own redirective programs.
Several songs express the successes of such a program, such as Chandler’s “Looking for a Better Way to Live” and Harvey Smith’s “Oh Lord Help Me.” Others, like “Crow in a Hickory Tree” by Bill Baker, are just fun songs which otherwise might never have been heard outside of Oklahoma. There are several gospel songs on the album as well, notably the beautiful song at the beginning of this post which was written and performed by Kim Holloway.