Johnnie B. Smith was recorded in the Texas State Penitentiary in the 60s while serving his fourth prison term, one of 45 years for murder. He was a powerful work-song leader, but his most important recordings were nine long, unaccompanied solos, which he approached as parts of a single song. Their 132 stanzas use essentially the same melody, at varying tempos, and with varying amounts of decoration. This melody, which appears to be unique to Smith, carries a four-line stanza, usually ABB’A’ with B’A’ a reversal of AB, leading to some striking poetic effects. Indeed, Smith was a remarkable poet of the prison experience, using some traditional lines and verses, but working them into songs that are largely original compositions, thematically coherent, and full of poignant images of confinement, loneliness and the slow passage of time. Smith was paroled in 1967, and did some preaching in Amarillo, but returned to prison owing to a parole violation.
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