Been returning recently to one of the more intense and affecting albums I’ve experienced in my short life of trouble: recordings made by Bruce Jackson in 1965 at Texas’s Ramsey Prison Farm (now the Ramsey Unit) of a fellow named Johnnie B., or J. B., Smith. The record was released in 1966 on John Fahey’s Takoma label, and is as far as I can tell the only LP devoted to a single unaccompanied singer of prison work-song. Not only that: the LP, “Ever Since I Have Been A Man Full Grown,” devotes nearly all of its second side to a composition of Smith’s of that same name, a 24-minute opus drawing on imagery and lyrics most fans of African American work songs, hollers, and blues will find familiar, but strung together and performed with an artistry and delivery both slightly unsettling and indelibly moving.
J. B. Smith, originally from Hearne, Texas, about 75 miles northeast of Austin, was in Ramsey on and off for years. Jackson wrote in his Wake Up Dead Man (Harvard, 1972) that, when he met him, Smith had already been in prison three times on burglary and robbery by assault charges. At the time of the recording, he was back in for the murder of his girlfriend, an act Smith recalled being born of “insane jealousy mixed up with love.” If ever ballads like “Knoxville Girl” or “The Banks of the Ohio” seem outlandish in their narrators’ acts, J. B. Smith brings their conceits down to earth: “So many of us do that,” he told Jackson, referring to his crime. “Lot of fellas in here today on those same terms.” The murder, according to Jackson, brought Smith back to Ramsey with “a forty-five-year sentence, which, because of his age, looked pretty much like life.”
[Jackson did continue, parenthetically: “He was paroled in 1967, lived in Amarillo for a while and did some preaching. I heard recently (1972) that he’d returned to prison for a parole violation.”]
If the nature of his crime was common enough, Smith’s creative response to his punishment wasn’t, even if he didn’t seem to think so. He told Jackson:
Now these songs, we can, you know, you stay here so long, a man can compose them if he want to. They just come to you. Your surroundings, your place, you’re so familiar with them, you can always make a song out of your surroundings. I read about some great poetry, like King David in the Bible, he used to make his psalms from the stars and he wrote so many psalms. A little talent and surroundings and I think it’s kind of easy to do it.
Jackson recorded seven solo songs of Smith’s (as well as a number of group work-songs that included him*), but only three could fit onto the Takoma LP, along with several short narrations, including a minute-long commentary on the notorious Texas prison transfer agent (or “long-chain man”) Bud Russell. The A-side songs, “I Got Too Much Time for the Crime I Done” and “No More Good Time In the World for Me,” are extremely evocative, and effective, but I suppose it’s the prodigiousness of “Ever Since…” that makes listening to it such an intense experience. And as these recordings weren’t made while working, Smith takes his time with his delivery, relaxing the phrases and stretching them out, free as they are of axe or hoe accompaniment. At one point you can even hear him rustling papers (as Ozark ballad-singer Almeda Riddle could be heard doing at times on her recordings). Immediate and private, it’s as though we’re listening in on “Smitty” in the bunkhouse, having found 20 minutes alone to sing out his lamentations unto the Lord.
The tragedy of Smith’s songs is that they’ve yet to be reissued in any form. And the tragedy of Smith — at least one of them — is that he has slipped back into obscurity. I wrote Bruce Jackson several years ago asking if he knew what became of Smith after the update he had been given before the publication of Wake Up Dead Man. He didn’t.
[*Some of these were released on two cassettes by the Curlew label in 1991: “I’m Troubled With A Diamond” and “Old Rattler Can’t Hold Me.”]
I was returned to this record of Smith’s by way of the release of a seemingly dissimilar album. The Yaala Yaala label out of Baltimore, run by Jack Carneal, who had spent several years in Mali with his family, has recently released two CDs of local musicians originally “issued” on cassette in Bougouni and Bamako (and another CD of field recordings made in those locales). The second of these CDs — Yaala Yaala oo3 — is of a griot named Daouda Dembele, a resident of the outskirts of Segou, who plays the West African lute called the ngoni (or kontingo or akonting or xalam, and considered by many to be the Ur-banjo).
There are plenty of griot (or jali) stars in the world music firmament at this point — kora players Toumani Diabate, Bai Konte, and Foday Musa Suso; the electric updates of Djelimady Tounkara’s Super Rail Band — but Yaala Yaala offers us the chance to hear a griot performance as might have been heard before the spatial limitations and market considerations of commercial recordings forced them to abbreviate. The CD contains a single performance, and I felt, listening to it once, then again, and then again, that the jali, so much like Smith, was performing privately on his terms, and I was being blessed by the opportunity to listen in. Of course, griots by function don’t sing for themselves; they sing for the edification and entertainment of others (and for their own livelihoods). But to spend such intimate time with recordings of folks like J. B. Smith and Daouda Dembele, in this age of mp3 clips and stuttering 16k audio streams (“buffering… buffering”), not to mention our own perpetual impatience, is a very moving and increasingly rare experience, and one to be treasured.