Caroline Gnagy on “Texas Jailhouse Music”
In March 1938, WBAP Radio in Fort Worth, Texas, broadcast a new show over the airwaves: Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. The program featured musicians from the Huntsville unit of the Texas State Prison and brought inmates — men and women — convicted of murder, forgery, robbery, and bootlegging into the living rooms of listeners around the state. Soon, fan letters to these musicians poured into the station. For the next decade, Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls changed the ways that listeners thought about prisoners. The show allowed the prisoners both the artistic freedom — and sometimes the legal freedom — to discover their musical talents and to develop them as means of rehabilitation or reform. It also shone a light on the possibilities of music to create an atmosphere of hope among the inmates.
Drawing deeply on prison records, radio show transcripts, and the words and music of the inmates themselves, music writer Caroline Gnagy passionately tells the stories of these men and women musicians — who also were inmates — in her powerful new book, Texas Jailhouse Music: A Prison Band History (The History Press). Above all, Gnagy is careful to present singers and musicians as real people — mothers, fathers, lovers, friends — who happen to be behind bars.
“All of them,” she writes, “fervently hoped that one more song on a guitar, one more yodel or one more interview about their lives would get them even closer to freedom and back into the arms of those they loved.”
Gnagy tells us, for example, about convict #73126, Hattie Ellis, a bootlegger imprisoned for murder. Ellis’ vocal tone and vibrato are reminiscent of Billie Holiday, according to Gnagy, and the phrasing, lyrics, and tempo of her version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” reflects the possible influence of Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan, in addition to the blues artists to whom she was often compared.
Gnagy also introduces us to convict #86043, Jackson “Jack” Purvis, the great jazz trumpeter who ends up at the Texas State Prison after being convicted of robbery. Using his musical talents to his advantage, he became the musical director of Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls, and he wrote the theme song for the show, “Twilight and You.” According to Gnagy, however, Purvis lacked self-discipline and displayed an affinity for self-destruction. When the governor granted Purvis a six-month stay, Purvis indicated on his records that he would be joining the Army, which he never did. Purvis disappeared for seven years, eventually being discovered in Florida and extradited to Texas, where his parole was revoked and he was returned to prison to complete his sentence.
Texas Jailhouse Music is deeply engaging and dramatically reveals the world of men and women behind bars who use music to get free. Gnagy vividly tells their stories, and she cannily weaves questions about the nature of penal reform — then and now — into her narratives. We’re in Gnagy’s debt as she peels back the curtain on a little-known but fascinating cultural history in Texas music.
I caught up with Gnagy recently to talk with her about her new book.
Henry Carrigan: What prompted you to write this book now? How long did it take you to write it?
Caroline Gnagy: Well, it’s been a long time coming! In 2011, a friend of mine told me about the Goree Girls — an all-girl Western swing band from the Texas prison in the 1940s — and I have to admit, I was hooked from there.
In 2003, Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly wrote a great story about the Goree band. The piece was so incredibly well-researched and fascinating; he’s really the one who deserves credit for seizing this aspect of Texas history in the first place, and for writing about it. I used his article as a jumping-off point, and the more I found about these inmates, the deeper I fell into a kind of “research vortex.” I mean the photographs of these bands just killed me, they were so compelling — and there were so many! It’s a hugely rich history, just waiting to be uncovered. I tried to include as many photos as I could in the book so that people really get a sense of the history and of these inmates as people, not just anonymous convicts.
Pretty soon into the project, I learned that some of these inmates directly contributed to the development of American music and music culture. From that, real significance could be drawn from a study of these bands — especially from an academic perspective. But as I talked about the project with all kinds of people — not only academics but other musicians, moms, dads, siblings, writers, documentarians, people on the street and so on — it became clear just how grabby a topic this was for the general public. Our notions of what the Texas prison system is like seems like such a contrast to these idyllic-looking photos of adorable young men and women with their instruments, and it just raises all kinds of questions. That’s when I decided to get a book written about it as soon as possible.
Somewhere along the line, I told a commissioning rep at the History Press about the topic and they were all over it. I’d say it took a couple of years to complete the entire process from contract to finished product, although it was probably only about four months of intensive writing on my part.
What’s your favorite story in the book, and why?
Oh my gosh, that’s a hard one! I think I have two solid favorite narratives, one female and one male.
The story of Reable Childs is great because I have a wealth of information. She was one of the very few Goree Girls who had children, and she held on to a lot of keepsakes and photos from her time in the prison — especially in the bands. She eventually told her daughter, Gayle, about that part of her life, and Gayle has relayed a lot of her story to me. It helps to have materials and oral history to work from in order to paint a portrait of a person who might’ve been otherwise just a number.
I’m also compelled by the story of Raymond E. Hall, who befriended the “Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers, before he was famous. After Hall was sent to prison, he wrote to Rodgers and ended up collaborating with him on some of his songs. Detailed histories of Jimmie Rodgers, such as those by Nolan Porterfield and Barry Mazor, talk about Hall, so his contributions to the development of the prison song in country music can’t be ignored.
What I found out about him outside of his contributions were shocking — I mean, this was a bad dude. He was a con artist, a liar, a murderer, a schemer, a rabble-rouser, and he remained in prison for almost his entire adult life, for very good reasons. At the same time, he was freakishly eloquent in his poetry and in his columns written for the prison newspaper. One of his poems even made it into Who’s Who in American Poetry for 1942. So, Raymond Hall was a fascinating figure, but it’s probably best if you didn’t get too close to the guy.
Can you talk some about how these musicians use music to “get free”?
Most obviously, the prisoners played in the prison bands in order to get clemency, early parole, and other benefits directly related to getting out from behind those steel bars, but there were other advantages as well. Many of the inmates didn’t sing or play an instrument before they went into the prison system, so they got to learn something of creative value and experience a genuine sense of accomplishment as they gained skill at making music. They created something positive with other inmates, bonding and working within a team dynamic to learn songs and perform as a group. They reaped the benefits of public approval and the thrill of applause for their appearances at the Texas Prison Rodeo and on the hugely popular prison radio show, Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. The inmate performers received literally thousands of fan letters each week — some containing gifts or even money.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the inmate bands also left the prison grounds regularly to perform at local regular rodeos, fairs, and festivals of all kinds throughout Texas and into Louisiana. At these events they were allowed to eat “real” food, walk around, and breathe fresh air, so they could — however briefly — literally taste and smell the freedom waiting for them after they got out.
Aside from that, we can safely assume that at least some of the inmates felt a love for the music itself. As human beings, we need food, water, shelter and warmth. But beyond basic human needs, communication through music is one of the most important aspects of humanity. Music makes you feel alive, and that had to be an enormous help to those who felt trapped and deadened by steel bars and armed prison guards on horseback.
What will readers be most surprised to learn from your book?
I think the whole topic itself is a bit of a surprise, on two levels — kind of different sides of the same coin.
First off, I think a lot of people have a general perception about the toughness of the Texas prison system. They know it’s no joke. The brutality of earlier decades, and some of the shocking experiences the inmates typically underwent — especially the women — also may not have been publicly acknowledged, and maybe they never will be. I’m sure some will think I’m going out on a limb with some conclusions. I’m not trying to make any accusations, especially so many decades later. American prison culture in the 1930s and 1940s was just different than now. But with Texas prison culture both then and now, people are still surprised to find out that these bands ever existed in the first place, and even more astonished to learn the extent to which music played a role in the prisons.
What about this historical period in Texas allowed the development of these bands and music?
Although the first half of the 20th century brought about many attempts at prison reform, I think the efforts put forth from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s proved most significant in the prison bands’ formation, for a few reasons.
First, we’re talking the advent of radio as a tool for shaping public perception. By the 1940s, politics and radio had become bosom buddies, most obviously as Franklin D. Roosevelt employed the radio to garner public support for reforms with his “Fireside Chats.” At the same time, the bands were fascinating to the public because of a pervading national spirit of “Good Samaritan”-ism in response to the Great Depression and the New Deal. So the prison system scored a regular radio time — operating on a far-reaching, clear-channel station — to improve their image. Through radio, they could make speeches, give examples, and generally show that they weren’t as bad as the many news reports alleged. They could capitalize on the entertainment factor. America in the 1930s [was] a public who needed a break from the hardships of everyday life. What better way to do that than to highlight the plights of those even less fortunate?
They talked about the “boys and girls in white” as human beings: hardworking, penitent, and maybe not so different from members of a listener’s own family. That approach went a really long way for both the inmate and the listener.
What forces prevent similar activity today? If this music is happening today, where do you see it happening?
Due to widespread legislation, I do feel that there’s been a lessening of accounts of brutality and inhumane treatment in Texas and throughout the United States. But out of this legislatively enforced improvement has arisen a sort of “de-personalization” of the inmate experience. I mean, the average inmate might not be beaten within an inch of their life or raped by a prison guard during their incarceration, but they are also expected to abide by the many rules, accept all changes in prison management without question, stay under the radar, and by no means forge any sort of identity for themselves outside of the prison culture norm — much less pick up a banjo!
It’s hard to imagine an explosion of musical acts occurring under those circumstances. Texas is similar to most states in rehabilitative programs related to music have generally ceased, except in the context of faith-based services. That said, Texas’ neighboring state of Louisiana has a long history of prison bands, and they still do. Others exist as well. It’s just a shame that most states have ceased using music as a rehabilitative program for their inmates.
What themes do you want readers to take from your book?
I’d really like to start a national conversation about this really cool, hidden part of American cultural history. It’s not just Texas that has a history of prison bands. Most US states have a history of bands in prisons, and these histories span many decades from the very late 1800s to present day. For every inmate story or band I’ve written about, there’s 50 more to be discovered. I want Texas Jailhouse Music to inspire people to take a look at their own state prisons and archives and see what they can uncover.
Second — bring back the music! The learning and performance of music has been documented to help people in incalculable ways. I mean, popular music in America has undergone a myriad of changes in the last 50 years, but that doesn’t mean that inmate musical programs couldn’t reflect that. Or whatever, bring back the old-school string bands, if it comes to that … just bring the music back. They need the music. We need the music. Everyone needs the music.