Music Consumption in the MP3 Era
Music Consumption in the MP3 Era

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Listen To This Playlist #4: Prison Songs

Jailhouse Rock [Movie Poster] (1957)

This is #4 in the Listen to this Playlist series at Freeway Jam, in conjunction with Rhapsody Radish. Here, we look at playlists of an offbeat nature, on a variety of themes. Then, you can go listen to the playlist over at Rhapsody Radish, for the full experience.

In addition to standbys drugs, sex, and itself, another enduring rock 'n' roll theme has always been prison. This tradition is nothing new to rock; as long as there has been blues and country music there have been prison songs, songs about jail, chain gangs, executioners, county farms, jailbreaks, rusty cages, and the like. Prison as subject matter extends as far back as the 19th century. It's probably impossible to compile a comprehensive list; Rhapsody Radish came up with this one, and at first glance I came up with five more without taxing my memory banks: "30 Days In The Hole" (Humble Pie, Gov't Mule), "Parchman Farm" (Mose Allison, Cactus), "Another Man Done Gone" (Odetta, Johnny Cash, Jorma Kaukonen), "Viola Lee Blues" (Memphis Jug Band, Grateful Dead), "Rusty Cage" (Soundgarden, Johnny Cash). A true music scholar could amass a list in the thousands most likely; you might earn a Master's degree if you do. So consider this a sampler, and feel free to add your favorites to the list.

1. Loretta Lynn: Women's Prison iTunes
Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose
In what may be one of the strangest pairings ever on the surface, country legend Lynn's 2004 album Van Lear Rose was produced by Jack White of the White Stripes. However, Jack White had made no secret of his admiration for Lynn; the White Stripes' album White Blood Cells was dedicated to Lynn, and the White Stripes covered her "Rated X". "Women's Prison" is among the standouts on the album, which was a tremendous success; the album reached #24 on the pop album charts, Lynn's best showing ever, and #2 on the country charts.

2. Sam Cooke: Chain Gang iTunes
Sam Cooke: Chain Gang [45] (1960)
"Chain Gang" was one of Cooke's biggest smashes ever, reaching #2 on the Black chart and #2 on the pop chart in 1960. Cooke had a remarkable string of 43 chart singles as a solo performer from 1957 through 1966 (nine of which charted posthumously), and he had also been a member of the premier gospel group of the 20th century, the Soul Stirrers from 1950-1956. Cooke was killed in a tawdry incident at a Los Angeles motel in 1964 when he was shot by the desk clerk during a disturbance.

3. Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues iTunes
Johnny Cash:  Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957)
"Folsom Prison Blues", first recorded in 1956, is one of the landmark prison songs in any genre. Cash, who was no stranger to hellraising himself in his early years, actually gains the listeners' sympathy for a man who "shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die". It was Cash's second single for Sun records, and peaked at #4 on the country charts. Perhaps the best-known version is the one he recorded live at Folsom Prison in 1968, one of a series of prison shows he performed in the 60's and 70's.

4. Eric Clapton: County Jail Blues iTunes
Eric Clapton: No reason To Cry (1976)
"County Jail Blues" is a forgotten nugget by largely forgotten bluesman Alfred Fields, on one of Clapton's most forgotten albums, No Reason To Cry, from 1976. Recorded at the Band's Shangri-La studio in Malibu, CA, the album features members of the Band on nearly every track, and among its songwriters. It's a fine album, perhaps interesting to fans of The Band more than fans of Clapton. "County Jail Blues" is an unexceptional but solid piece of Americana, done right by Clapton.

5. George Thorogood: 99 Days In Jail iTunes
George Thorogood: Half A Boy/Half A Man (1999)
Perhaps the most traditionalist of all Chicago-blues inspired post-60's rock guitarists, Thorogood has always stuck to his same loud, direct, simple formula: electric blues guitar licks, played rough, with either good-time or bad-boy lyrics, usually half originals and half covers per album. "99 Days In Jail" is an old Willie Dixon number, dusted off and given life on Thorogood's 1999 Half a Boy/Half a Man album. Thorogood had been freshly dropped from capitol; Half a Boy/Half a Man was recorded for CMC International. Except for the label, nothing much has changed.

6. Jimmy Page: Prison Blues iTunes
Jimmy Page: Outrider (1988)
"Prison Blues" was co-written by Page and singer/songwriter Chris Farlowe and appeared on Page's first solo album, Outrider in 1988. Outrider is not one of the more memorable chapters in Page's long and storied career; it was released amid a lot of hype after the breakup of Page's previous band, The Firm. The album employs a wide range of sidemen and vocalists (Robert Plant appears on one cut), and this mix of performers gave the album a distractingly uneven feel. However, there's plenty of good guitar on it, and "Prison Blues" is one of the better guitar workouts; the longest song on the album.

7. Todd Snider: Prison Walls iTunes
Todd Snider: Step Right Up (1996)
Todd Snider was a Seattle-area singer songwriter who is best known for "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues", a lampoon of the grunge scene that scored with older and younger listeners who didn't dig grunge. "Prison Walls" is from his 1996 sophomore release, Step Right Up. Like most of Snider's material, it's an original, in a ragged folk/blues/country style. Snider is a throwback to the 60's in vision and presentation, but he's not a bad throwback. His band, the Nervous Wrecks provide enough solid rock 'n' roll backing to keep things moving.

8. The Postal Service: This Place Is A Prison iTunes
The Postal Servie: Give Up (2003)
The Postal Service is an indie-rock/electronica supergroup consisting of Jimmy Tamborello and death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard. "This Place Is A Prison" is a Gibbard tune from Give Up, The Postal Service's 2003 debut album, and recalls Gibbard and Tamborello's earlier work with the electronica group Dntel; full of distorted beats and shimmering synths. Give Up only made it as high as #114 on the Billboard album charts, but did reach #1 on both the Top Heatseekers and Top Electronic charts.

9. Warren Zevon: Prison Grove iTunes
Warren Zevon: The Wind (2003)
Warren Zevon's recording career dates all the way back to 1966 as member of the duo Lyme and Cybelle; he has written numerous songs that were hits for other artists, and recorded a number of classic albums of his own, displaying his ascerbic wit and clever songsmithing. In 2003, he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, and given months to live; he spent his last days working feverishly on The Wind, his final statement. "Prison Grove" is an excellent character sketch of life behind bars; much of this album, despite the odds, is among his better work. He died Sept. 7, 2003.

10. Thin Lizzy: Jailbreak iTunes
Thin Lizzy: Jailbreak (1976)
Thin Lizzy, an Irish hard rock unit led by a black lead singer, Phil Lynott, was an anomoly in the nearly all-white hard-rock world of the 70's; his lyrics often dealt with themes of being an outsider and alienation. Their peak ran from about 1976-1979; during that time, they cut five well-regarded albums before slipping into drugs and self destruction. "Jailbreak" is from their commercial and creative peak, Jailbreak, a 1976 album that peaked at #12 and yielded the classic rock staple, "The Boys Are Back In Town". That hit doesn't quite capture the essence of the band, "Jailbreak", another single from the album does, with its sparse three-chord hammering riff and tightly strung arrangement. Lynott died in 1986.

11. John Prine: Christmas In Prison iTunes
John Prine: Sweet revenge (1973)
John Prine is a critic's favorite; a singer/songwriter who has worked in folk, rockabilly, and country styles. "Christmas In Prison" comes from his 1973 album, Sweet Revenge, an early effort noteworthy for its almost unrelenting strain of uninterrupted jaded cynicism, which ultimately became Prine's stock-in-trade approach. "Cristmas In Prison" is one of the best songs on this transitional album; after this, he'd pursue a more rock 'n' roll sound that was absent on his earlier albums.

12. Chuck Berry: Have Mercy Judge iTunes
Chuck Berry: back Home (1970)
Chuck Berry returned to Chess records, home of his most famous recordings, in 1969, after an unsuccessful stay with Mercury. His second album in his second Chess stint was Back Home, which found Berry working in a style that recalls his glory days in sound, if not quite in spirit. "Have Mercy Judge" is one of the standouts on the album, the other is "Tulane". Unfortunately, Berry's output in the 70's would be vastly inferior to his 50's and early 60's material; this 1970 album represents the high point.

13. Pink Floyd: The Trial iTunes
Pink Floyd: The Trial (1979)
"The Trial" comes at the muddled climax of The Wall, where things really get confusing. Bombastic and theatrical, it serves its primary function as plot device; as a stand-alone it isn't much. Producer Bob Ezrin collects a songwriting credit here, reflecting the song's studio construction. The Wall remains one of Pink Floyd's most inconsistent albums, veering wildly between some of the band's best hard rock and some of their worst "progressive" snippets.

14. The Byrds: Life In Prison iTunes
The Byrds: Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)
"Life In Prison" is a classic Merle Haggard song, done here by the Byrds on the 1968 landmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, which was recorded with Gram Parsons in the band, and was one of the first defining moments of the country-rock genre. Parsons helped turn the Byrds from a folk-rock outfit into a country-rock one; although he'd depart after this album, the band would continue in a similar vein. The country sound they adapted was similar to the Bakersfield school, which included Haggard and Buck Owens.

15. Peggy Lee: Birmingham Jail
Peggy Lee: Miss Peggy Lee Sings The Blues (1988)
"Birmingham Jail" is a traditional standard included on Lee's 1988 album, Sings the Blues. Lee is best known for her sultry, sexy, femme-fatale 1958 hit "Fever" and her jaded, autumn-of-her-years "Is That All There Is" from 1969. "Birmingham Jail", and the rest of this album was recorded when she was 68 years old; consequently, she's well past her prime, and her voice is fairly weak. Still, it was one of her best late albums, and worth picking up if you see it in the remainder bin and are a big fan of what she does. Lee died in 2002, at the age of 82.

16. Guitar Slim: Letter To My Girlfriend (a.k.a. Prison Blues) iTunes
Guitar Slim: The Things That I Used To Do (1954)
Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones) was a flamboyant electric bluesman of the fifties known for his loud clothing in bright green, purple, or red and his hair, which he'd often dye to match his suit. Born in Mississippi, he moved to New Orleans, where he made his mark; his best known tune is "The Things That I Used To Do" which topped the r&b charts for 14 weeks in 1954. "Letter To My Girlfriend" first appeared on the 1954 album The Things That I Used To Do, and captures his brash style, which recalled the guitar pyrotechnics of Gatemouth Brown. The fast-living Guitar Slim died in 1959.

17. Pete Seeger: Cryderville Jail iTunes
Pete Seeger: A Link In The Chain (1996)
Pete Seeger deserves almost as much credit as anyone for finding and preserving songs from America's rich folk past, many of which come from Appalachia, and were unknown to the music world at large. Perhaps the only other person to do as much is music historian Alan Lomax, who spent a good deal of his life tracking down songs in the deepest corners of Appalachia. "Cryderville Jail" of unknown authorship, is a traditional Appalachian folk tune discovered by Lomax, and covered by Seeger. Anyone with an interest in Americana should pick up a Seeger compilation and a Lomax compilation.

18. The Kinks: Holloway Jail iTunes
The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies (1971)
"Holloway Jail" is from the Kinks' 1971 offering, Muswell Hillbillies, a loose concept album featuring forays into country, folk, and British beerhall music. "Holloway Jail" is in a country vein, and is the tale of the singer's lady being taken away to jail. Muswell Hillbillies is considered by many to be the last album of the Kinks' classic period, 1964-1971. Others claim the classic period ended in 1970, pointedly excluding this album. It is an odd collection, better than their mid-70's output, but stranger and cornier than their real classic mid-60's output.

19. Charlie Daniels Band: Wichita Jail iTunes
Charlie Daniels Band: Saddle Tramp (1976)
"Wichita Jail" is one of Daniels' greatest hits, coming as he was beginning to reach his pinnacle of success, which would endure for the next decade. Saddle Tramp can be considered a country album with enormous rock influence, in the way that Sweetheart of the Rodeo was a rock album with tremendous country influence; the album peaked at #7 on the country charts, and #35 on the pop charts; "Wichita Jail" reached #22 on the country charts.

20. The Kingston Trio: Allentown Jail
Kingston trio: The Capitol Years (1995)
The Kingston Trio were among the most important folk music popularizers in history. From 1958-1963 they placed 16 songs on the charts, and managed 14 top-10 albums, including five that reached #1. They seldom wrote their own material; instead, they focused on covering folk songwriters of their day and earlier. "Allentown Jail" was written by Irving Gordon, who wrote lyrics for Perry Como, Patti Page, Bing Crosby, and Billie Holiday. Previously unreleased until it turned up in the 107-song collection, The Capitol Years, from 1995.

21. Johnny Cash: Starkville City Jail
Johnny cash: At San Quentin (1969)
The best known version of this tune comes from Cash's 1969 album At San Quentin, a follow-up to At Folsom Prison. Cash's guitarist, Luther Perkins, had just died, which changed the dynamics considerably within Cash's band; rather than remain tied to the rockabilly two-step of most of his earlier music, Cash seems wildly unhinged here, playing and singing with abandon. This may also be due to his speed habit, which was out of control at this point. Still, the album, if not one of his best, is a good freewheeling one, and "Starkville County Jail" is one of his better prison numbers of many he recorded.

22. Peter Tosh: Nah Goa Jail
Peter Tosh: No Nuclear War (1987)
Peter Tosh had originally been a member of Bob Marley's Wailers before striking out on a successful solo career of his own in 1976. No stranger to time behind bars himself, this amusingly titled tune is a flat out statement to the coppers to stop harassing him, to legalize marijuana, and a mince-no-words announcement that he wouldn't stand for more jail time. This dangerous sentiment (Jamaica in the 70's didn't take disses to authority lightly) was undercut with one of his most light and breezy melodies, making it seem like a harmless reggae-pop tune. Tosh never got a chance to see how the song would be received; he'd be murdered, along with six others, in a mysterious and suspicious robbery-gone-wrong in 1987, weeks after the album's release.

23. The Specials: Rude Boys Outta Jail
The Specials: Singles Collection (1991)
Formed in 1977, the Specials were the flagship English ska-revival band. When they appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, they touched off a sizable movement that has ebbed and flowed to this day. "Rude Boys Outta Jail" was a single-only release, of which this band has many; fortunately they were collected in the 1991 Singles Collection release. Their self-titled debut album remains one of the best ska-revival discs, and one of the best releases of the late 1970's in any genre.

24. David Allen Coe: Need A Little Time Off For Bad Behavior iTunes
David Allen Coe: A Matter Of Life And Death (1988)
David Allan Coe gives new dimension to the term "outlaw" in country music. Long considered a renegade, maverick, troublemaker, and rebel, he has made tough minded hardcore country since the late 60's. Coe comes by his outlaw persona honestly; first arrested at the age of nine, he spent most of the next twenty years in reform school, jail, and the Ohio State Penitentiary. "Need A Little Time Off For Bad Behavior" is from his 1987 album A Matter of Life and Death, which wasn't one of his best selling, but is arguably one of his best.

25. Gene Autry: Dallas County Jail Blues iTunes
Gene Autry: Blues Singer 1929-1931 (1996)
The original singing cowboy, Gene Autry goes way, way back. What may come as a surprise is that in addition to his familiar country and western style, he also dabbled in blues. He was no bluesman in the traditional sense, not even close; most of this fine collection is Autry yodeling while accompanying himself on guitar. Still, there is a real blues influence at work here, and listening to this collection of Autry's earliest work may be a revelation to understanding his later style. He wrote most of the songs, too, including "Dallas County Jail Blues", which dates from 1930.

26. The Pretenders: Back On The Chain Gang iTunes
The Pretenders: Learning To Crawl (1984)
"Back On The Chain Gang" was a 1983 single for the Pretenders, who had just seen their guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon both die within a year of each other from heroin overdoses. The song was a tribute of sorts to Scott, and has a wistful, sad quality to it. The Pretenders rebounded from this twin tragedy to record the excellent Learning To Crawl in 1984 with a new band; the album included this single and its b-side, "My City Was Gone" "Back On The Chain Gang" peaked at #5, as did the album.

27. Wesley Willis: He's Doing Time In Jail iTunes
Wesley Willis: Greatest Hits (1995)
Wesley Willis was a schizophrenic street musician who caterwauled and ranted over a rudimentary three chords. Most of his material was composed on the spot about whatever popped into his head; people he knew, things he saw, everyday items. He recorded a whopping thirty albums in three years; it's almost impossible to know where to sample his work, although Greatest Hits, which isn't strictly an anthology, is as good a place as any. "He's Doing Time In Jail" is on the album, sandwiched between "Jesus Is The Answer" and "I'm Sorry That I Got Fat".

28. Bessie Smith: Sing Sing Prison Blues iTunes
Bessie Smith: The Gold Collection (1990)
Bessie Smith is the first major female blues/jazz singer on record, and had an extremely powerful voice that is still an inspiration nearly a century later. Her career dates back to 1912, when she sang in the same show as Ma Rainey; her recording career dates from 1923. The Gold Collection is a 40-track 2-disc retrospective of the songs she cut for Okeh from 1923-1933; it's essential listening for students of blues. "Sing Sing Prison Blues" is among the classics included.

29. Elvis Presley: Jailhouse Rock iTunes
Elvis Presley: jailhouse Rock [French 45]
While there are many omissions on this list, one couldn't very well leave off Elvis Presley's famous "Jailhouse Rock", which was a #1 in 1957. Composed by Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller, who were among the most consistent hitmakers of the late 50's and early 60's, it was created specifically as a title track to Elvis' third movie. It's one of Presley's rawest hits; he practically shouts his way though it, the chords are among the simplest ever in a #1 hit, anyone can play it, even if they know nothing about guitar (Presley's version is in D).

Listen to this playlist at Rhapsody Radish


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