Prisoner's Song (I), The
DESCRIPTION: The singer laments his time in prison, and thinks of all that he would do if free. He recalls his crime. He misses his family and his sweetheart. He describes his hopes for freedom in complex metaphors: a ship on the sea, an eagle's wings, etc.
EARLIEST DATE: 1924 (recording, Vernon Dalhart)
KEYWORDS: prison lament love family
FOUND IN: US(MA,MW,So) Ireland Canada
REFERENCES (12 citations):
FSCatskills 100, "The Prisoner's Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Randolph 746, "Meet Me Tonight" (4 texts, 1 tune, with the "C" text being probably this piece although the other three appear to go with "Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight")
BrownIII 350, "The Prisoner's Song" (7 texts plus 1 fragment, 2 excerpts, and mention of 1 more; "A"-"C," plus probably the "D" excerpt, are "The Prisoner's Song (I)"; "E" and "G," plus perhaps the "H" fragment, are "Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight"; "J" and "K" are "Sweet Lulur"); also probably 351, "Seven Long Years" (1 text, certainly mixed but containing elements characteristic of this song)
McNeil-SMF, p. 48, "The Prisoner's Song" (1 text, along with a text of "Meet Me in the Moonlight" and extensive history), culminating on pp. 50-51 with "Prisoner's Song (Tragic Romance)" (1 text, 1 tune)
BrownSchinhanV 350, "The Prisoner's Song" (tune omitted to avoid copyright issues, but with a note and stanza showing that some of the words of the Dalhart song date to 1881); 351, "Seven Long Years" (1 tune plus a text excerpt)
JHCoxIIB, #27, pp. 193-194, "The Prisoner's Song" (1 text, 1 tune, collected in 1925 and almost certainly Dalhart-influenced)
Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 346-351, "New Jail/Prisoner's Song/Here's Adieu to all Judges and Juries" (1 text, not collected by Scarborough, of "Judges and Juries," plus 6 texts from her collections: "New Jail," "I'm Going To My New Jail Tomorrow," "New Jail," "Meet Me in the Moonlight," "The Great Ship," "Prisoner's Song"; 3 tunes on pp.449-450; the "A" fragment is probably "Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight"; "B" and "D" are "New Jail" types; "C" is too short to classify; "E" is a mix of floating verse, "If I had a great ship on the ocean," "Let her go, let her go and God bless her," "Sometimes I'll live in the white house, sometimes I live in town..."; "F" may well have some Dalhart influence)
Fuson, p. 143, "Meet Me in the Moonlight" (1 text)
Sandburg, pp. 218-219, "Seven Long Years in State Prison" (1 text, 1 tune)
Stout 35, p. 49, "The Prisoner's Song" (1 text, which appears to be directly due to Dalhart)
SHenry H746, p. 62, "Gaol Song" (1 text, 1 tune)
Shay-Barroom, pp. 190-191, "Seven Long Years" (1 text, mostly "For Seven Long Years I've Been Married" but with two verses of "The Prisoner's Song (I)" or one of its various relatives)
ST FSC100 (Partial)
Clarence Ashley & Tex Isley, "Prisoner's Song" (on Ashley01)
Wilf Carter, "The Prisoner's Song" (Bluebird 33-0503, 1942; Bluebird [Canadian] 55-3202, 1943; rec. 1941)
Carter Family, "Meet Me By the Moonlight Alone" (Conqyeror 8734, 1936/ARC 7-01-54, 1937; rec. 1935)
Vernon Dalhart, "The Prisoner's Song" (Victor 19427-B, 1924) (Columbia 257-D, 1924) (Perfect 12164, 1924) (Edison 51459 [as Vernon Dalhart & Co.], 1925; rec. 1924) (Brunswick 2900, 1925) (OKeh 40328 [as Tobe Little], 1925) (Bell 340, 1925) (Regal 9795, 1925) (Cameo 703 [708?], 1925; Perfect 12644/Supertone S-2000, 1930) (Apex [Can.] 8428, 1926) (CYL: Edison [BA] 4954, n.d. [as Vernon Dalhart & Co.]) (Ajax [Can.] 17115, 1925 - probably a reissue of another recording, but it's not clear which)
Kaplan's Melodists w. Vernon Dalhart, voc. "The Prisoner's Song" (Edison 51666, 1925)
Jimmie Davis, "The Prisoner's Song" (Decca 5966/Melotone [Canada] 45455, 1941)
Fats Domino, “Prisoner’s Song” (Imperial 45 X5526, rec. 1958)
Buell Kazee [untitled fragment, under "On Top of Old Smokey"] (on Kazee01)
Bill Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys, "The Prisoner's Song" (Decca 46314, 1951)
Ezra Paulette & his Beverly Hillbillies, "The Prisoner's Song" (Vocalion 03263, 1936)
George Reneau "The Prisoner's Song" (Vocalion 5056/Vocalion 14991/Silvertone 3045 [as George Hobson], 1925)
Arthur Smith, "Kilby Jail" (on McGeeSmith1)
The Texas Drifter, "The Prisoner's Song" (Panachord [U.K.] 25250, 1932)
cf. "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" (tune)
cf. "Botany Bay"
cf. "Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight"
cf. "New Prisoner's Song"
cf. "The Prisoner's Song (II)"
cf. "Sweet Lulur" (floating verses)
NOTES [693 words]: Disentangling the sources and versions of this song is almost impossible. Cazden et al believe that it was formed by the collation of two songs, one belonging to the "Botany Bay/Here's Adieu to All Judges and Juries" family and another being a variant of "Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight/I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me." Various floating verses added to the mix, and a portion of "The Red River Valley" supplied the tune. (Others say the tune is "The Ship That Never Returned." Another part of the family, the "Seven Long Years in State Prison/I'm Going to the New Jail Tomorrow" group, uses a slightly regularized form of "My Bonnie.")
Such an elaborate reconstruction can hardly be proved, but there is no doubt that this song has complex roots. The relationships between the texts can hardly be proved; I just hope we locate all of them!
Plus, of course, almost any version collected after 1924 may have been influenced by the Vernon Dalhart recording, which was certainly the first million-selling country side (exact numbers are uncertain, but sheet music sales exceeded one million, and at least two million discs were sold; some estimates put the total at 25 million or more!). The Carter Family also had "Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight" version, which adds to the complications.
The Dalhart version was copyrighted in 1924 by Dalhart in the name of Guy Massey, a cousin of the singer. At one point, Dalhart claimed Massey wrote the words and he himself the tune. On other occasions, Dalhart claimed the whole song. He also said at one point that it was public domain. Dalhart managed to collect author's royalties, though -- and gave very little to Massey.
It is fascinating to observe that the 1925 sheet music makes no mention of Dalhart at all. The cover page reads "The Prisoner's Song -- Ballad -- -- With Violin Obigato. Words and Music by Guy Massey." It was published by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. It contains two arrangements of the song, a version for male quartette arranged by Jack Glogau and an uncredited piano arrangement. Contrary to the front cover, there is no part marked for the violin (although "a violin solo is suggested between the third and fourth stanzas"). There is a piano lead-in, which looks to me as if it may have been suggested by Adelyne Hood's and Carson Robison's fiddle-and-guitar performance -- at least, the bass line looks a lot like a guy strumming chords. The lyrics are identical to Dalhart's, The back cover features a sample of "The Convict and the Rose" by Betty Chapin (which *does* have a violin obligato). It looks as if it was rushed out once Dalhart had his hit, even though his name is not to be found on it.
The above (except for the description of the sheet music) is mostly from Walter Darrell Haden, in his biography of Dalhart in Malone & McCulloh, Stars of Country Music. But he also offers a more complicated tale:
When Dalhart planned to record "The Wreck of Old 97" for Victor (he had already recorded it for Edison, and it was his biggest success to that time), they needed a flip side. To that point, Dalhart had been doing mostly operatic pieces, and didn't have much of a country repertoire. He showed the studio's music director a few lines written out (but not necessarily composed) by Massey. The Victor official, Nathaniel Shilkret, padded out the text and added a tune.
Whatever the details of authorship (and I agree with Haden that this is a slightly-patched-up folksong), it launched Dalhart on a career in which he sold an estimated 50 million discs, cut some 3000 sides totalling about 1000 different songs, and recorded under dozens if not hundreds of names.
In an interesting folkloric touch, it is reported that the band at Belle Guinan's speakeasy the El Fay Club in New York would play "The Prisoner's Song" when someone turned up to try to enforce Prohibition (Deborah Blum, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, Penguin, 2010, p. 52). - RBW
Mike Seeger classes "Kilby Jail" as being a variant of this song. The words don't look like it to me, but certainly the gestalt is the same, so I'll go along with him. - PJS
Last updated in version 4.3
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.