Folklorist Bruce Jackson was among the last to record work songs. In 1964 he visited Ramsey State Farm in Rosharon, Texas, where he met Johnnie B. Smith, prisoner #130196. A native of Hearne, Texas, Smitty was 46 years old and on his fourth prison term. In his younger days, Smitty toted lead hoe in a flat-weeding gang and led the work songs.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of a good song leader in the penitentiary setting—one needed to be rhythmically, lyrically, and physically reliable, to maintain those songs over interminable hours of hard labor under an unforgiving south-central Texas sun. But J.B. also sang other songs, different songs—those he’d made up to occupy himself while chopping sugarcane or picking cotton. He referred to them as his “little ol’ songs.” The longest stretched to thirty-three verses, or more than twenty-two recorded minutes. Although Smitty knew and sang a variety of melodies, to an assortment of work songs and sacred pieces, he employed only one tune for his compositions.
What changed were the tempo and the ornamentation with which he individualized them. “The Major Special,” “No More Good Time In The World For Me,” “Ever Since I Been A Man Full Grown”—each song Smith charged with its own emotional ambience, as a seasoned preacher intuits the particular colors and atmospheres that should imbue each portion of his service. Smith was paroled in 1967, a year
after his final session with Jackson
and the release, on John Fahey’s
Takoma Records, of an LP— Ever Since
I Have Been A Man Full Grown —of three of Smitty’s songs.
That summer, Bruce arranged for him to sing at the Newport Folk Festival, at which he appeared on stage with Pete Seeger, and, in one of the only photos that survive of him, in the company of Robert Pete Williams and Muddy Waters. A couple of years passed before Bruce heard from him again. He had returned to Amarillo, where he preached for a while; a parole violation then sent him back to prison.
1. No More Good Time in the World for Me
2. Watching My Timber *
3. Drop ‘Em Down Together *
4. I Got Too Much Time for the Crime I Done
5. They Can’t Do That (Toast) *
6. I Heard the Reports of a Pistol *
7. Drinking That Wine *
8. Ever Since I Been a Man Full Grown
1. Sure Make a Man Feel Bad *
2. Tried By Fire *
3. Woman Trouble *
4. On Composition (Spoken) *
5. The Major Special *
6. No Payday Here *
7. At the Cross *
8. Poor Boy, Number Two *
9. On Getting Out (Spoken)*
10. Go Ahead *