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Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932

Band A8

Gordon printed another text of "Prisoner's song" in Adventure for January 1, 1927, with the following introduction:

The third song most of you will recognize. A few months ago I read that the "author" had recently died in Texas. I don't believe it! Or should I be more frank and say -- I know better! At any rate, send me all the knowledge you have as to the age of the song, the places where it has been sung, and when -- the men reputed to have written it or any part of it. The story is a mighty interesting one. I have most of the facts already, but I want a mass of backing up from you, such a mass that no one can ever question my facts when I bring them out. And some day, in the not far distant future, I will bring them out for all you to read.

Gordon is referring here to Guy Massey, who coauthored the popular "Prisoner's Song" -- a million seller in Vernon Dalhart's 1925 recording and on the same record with "The Wreck of the Old 97." The words of Dalhart's "Prisoner's song" were provided by his cousin Guy Massey and the tune by New York orchestra leader and Victor employee Nat Shilkret (Hayden, pp. 101-3). Massey's text was based on several earlier songs, including the English folksong "Here's Adieu To All Judges and Juries" (see Sharp, A, pp. 226-28), and the nineteenth-century English broadside "Meet Me By the Moonlight" (Wilgus, pp. 97-98).

Gordon's query produced a number of versions of the Dalhart song as well as a few copies (2375, 2384) of the present song, which Belden and Hudson, in their notes to "Seven Long Years" as collected by Frank C. Brown, call "quite distinct from 'The Prisoner's Song'" and related songs (III, pp. 416-17). What makes it distinctive is the chorus and tune of the song. Although the origins of the song are obscure, Brown collected several versions in North Carolina and several other southern versions. Others were collected in Nova Scotia by MacKenzie (p. 303) and Creighton (p. 309). While Belden and Hudson strove to disassociate this song from the "Prisoner's Song/Meet Me In the Moonlight" cycle, Gordon's impulse was to fit it into the larger pattern; for he viewed himself as a scientific detective, on the trail of folksong origins. This can be seen in his introduction to the readers of Adventure for this song. Wherever possible he approached his collecting with a problem in mind and sought to obtain multiple variants of songs which would help him solve the problem.

PRISONER'S SONG [MP3 file]
Gordon cyl. A119-20, Item NC176
Ernest Helton, with banjo accompaniment
Biltmore, North Carolina
November 20, 1925

Well, it's hard to be locked up in prison
'way from your friends and your home,
With the cold iron bars all around you
And a pillow that is made out of stone.

Chorus:
Lone and sad, sad and lone,
Sitting in my cell all alone;
Thinking of the days that's gone by me,
Of the days when I knew I had a home.

[False Start]

Lone and sad, sad and lone,
Sitting in my cell all alone;
Thinking of the days that's gone by me,
Of the days when I knew I had a home.

Seven long years I been in prison,
Seven long years yesterday,
For knocking a man down in the alley
And taking his gold watch and chain.

*Chorus

I once had a father and a mother,
I wonder if they ever think of me;
I once had a sister and a brother
Dwelled in a [?] cottage by the sea

*Chorus

I am going to a new jail tomorrow,
I'm leaving the ones that I love.
I'm leaving my friends and relations,
And oh how lonely my home.

*Chorus

*NOTE: The last three choruses have been omitted from this LP because of technical difficulties in copying the original cylinder.

 

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   June 23, 2011
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