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Texas Jailhouse Music features the stories and music behind the convict bands of the Texas prison system, beginning in the 1930s-1940s. Caroline has researched prison bands in a number of states for nearly five years, and Texas Jailhouse Music is the first book-length exploration of its kind.
Equal parts historical literature and music journalism, Caroline Gnagy's Texas Jailhouse Music is a poignant work. . . A testament to the redemptive power of music, Texas Jailhouse Music proves that every story is worth telling – even those confined by prison bars.
-- The Austin Chronicle
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.
-- No Depression
Gnagy. . . focuses on the WBAP radio program and highlights the tradition of using music behind bars to give inmates cultural experiences to help them on the outside.
--Dallas Morning News
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"As If They Were Going Places: Class and Gender Portrayals Through Country Music in the Texas State Prison System, 1935 – 1945." In Country Boys and Redneck Women (Kristine McCusker and Diane Pecknold, Ed.). Publisher: University of Mississippi Press, 2016.
"Little Ramona's Gone Hillbilly Nuts: Fashion Culture & Visual Style in Country Music." Oxford Handbook of Country Music (Travis Stimeling, Ed.). Publisher: Oxford University Press, (Spring 2017).
1 - The Uncontacted Trilogy, Book 1: Novel, YA fiction.
2 - (Title TBA), Non-fiction history book about pioneering women of rockabilly music.Read on: An Interview with Caroline Gnagy
Read on: An Interview with Caroline Gnagy
How did you get interested in this research?
I’d been fascinated by the work of John Avery Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax, for many years and knew about their work recording in prisons across the U.S.. In 2011, a friend of mine told me about the Goree Girls—a western-style group of white, female inmates in the Texas prison in the 1940s—and wow! I just had to know more about them. I became a little consumed, I'm afraid. Soon I located a 2003 Texas Monthly article written by Skip Hollandsworth, called “O Sister, Where Art Thou?” Skip’s expert work on that article essentially formed the bedrock of my own research. As I learned more, I was drawn deeper and discovered that the Goree Girls were just one part of a huge, compelling story that simply had to be told.
As a musician yourself, what was it like learning about these prison bands and researching these inmate’s stories?
Well, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a small girl, and I always performed music as well. In the early 2000s, I realized that I could combine my two loves, and write about music. I’d always loved learning about and performing the music of people whom I considered to be “obscure” musical legends—that is, folks who might’ve been somewhat overlooked by general popular culture—and so I wrote about them. When I learned about the Texas prison bands and the radio show, Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls...I figured I’d take it all the way. I mean, what’s more obscure than long-forgotten music of one of America’s most forgotten populations?
I found a place to start with Skip’s article, finding out some names and so on. I then dove into the prison records, radio show transcripts, the prison newspaper (the Texas Prison Echo), and local newspapers of the time. What I found just blew my mind. These inmates—they were in prison...and they each had a story to tell. There were so many stories I uncovered—tales of unhappiness, crimes of passion, transgressions committed out of sheer desperation borne of Texas during the 1920s and 1930s. It really put into perspective how hard times were for these inmates (many of whom weren’t musically inclined to begin with). Learning about the Texas prisons during that era also opened my eyes a lot—what they all went through! We need to know about their stories, their journeys, and the historical impact they had on music, penology and even popular culture in America.
Were there any particular inmates or stories you felt you were able to connect with?
As a woman, I have to say that the plight of the female inmates really resonated with me. I was shocked to learn that nearly all of them were given hysterectomies upon their incarceration, and it's kind of sad and sickening to think about. It impacted my research, too, because if the women in the prison bands couldn’t have children, there’s more of a chance that they (and their music) would be forgotten. To that end, Goree Girl Reable Childs, in particular, became central to the story of the Texas prison bands. I believe that despite her 25-year murder sentence, Reable Childs was an exceptional person—articulate, poised and good-hearted—who unfortunately ended up in the prison in 1936. But if ever a prisoner made the best of it, she did! Reable’s daughter, Gayle—the only child who was born of any of the original Goree Girls after prison—has helped us understand so much about Reable's take on the circumstances, the era, and the prejudices that existed at the time.
If you had the chance to see one of these bands perform, which would it be?
I’d love to see one of my chapter 5 guys, Lewis “Lefty” Franklin, battle it out with world champion fiddler Eck Robertson during one of their World War I fiddle-offs. But as a female musician, I personally would be most interested in seeing the Goree All-Girl String Band! Now they weren’t the first all-female western-style band to exist, but they were one of the first, and certainly the most unique and long-running! Plus there’s no recordings of the Goree Girls that have been found yet, so although I know the songs they sang, I have no idea what they actually sounded like.
You’ve included a list of suggested listening toward the end of the book. Do you have a personal favorite?
Hands down, the recordings of Hattie Ellis! She was one of the radio show’s star performers, and I’m so glad that Lomax recorded her when he came through in 1939. I'm even more glad that these recordings are available online. After a lot of research, Hattie’s story after she left the prison remains a complete mystery. But her voice—it haunts you, even today. So, so good.
What would you like for readers to take away from reading Texas Jailhouse Music?
First off, I think that the existence of prison bands is a widespread and fascinating—but largely unexplored—part of American cultural history. Although my book is about some of the prison bands of Texas, in fact there’s a hidden history of prison bands in most other states as well! In these other states, many prison bands performed as part of the entertainment for state functions like picnics and parades. Some prison bands in other states performed live on the radio and television, and made recordings that we can listen to today. Surprisingly, some of them even went on actual multi-state tours—like, in a tour bus or van!
On a deeper level, though...I believe that music is an important rehabilitative tool for many people, especially incarcerated populations. Even so, few state and federal prison systems today have musical programs available for inmate participation. The current U.S. prison population is staggeringly large—and they’re struggling. By exploring the backstories of a few Texas inmates who made music so long ago, I want to show how these prisoners were not only human, but talented; each with a compelling story of their own. I want to remind people that once upon a time, inmate rehabilitation was an important part of penology’s bigger picture. Maybe by learning about this aspect of prison history, we can jumpstart some change, and advocate for the return of music programs in the prisons.
Caroline discusses Texas Jailhouse Music with Houston Matters's Michael Hagerty: