Country Blues > SOTM - Song Of The Month

SOTM 3 July 2015: In the Jailhouse Now

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Norfolk Slim:
On Ball & Sultan's ?Anniversary Album?, this song is introduced by reference to Jimmie Rodgers and Blind Blake (who both recorded it at around the same time), but Tom Ball comments that he suspects neither one of those two wrote it and that it goes back further. 

Unsurprisingly, a little digging confirms that.  It seems that there are two distinct branches in the evolution of the song, presumably with a common ancestor which we can't definitively trace. The Jimmie Rodgers version is markedly different from Blake's which suggests to me that neither was influenced by the other.  Alternatively, perhaps its possible that Rodgers (who copyrighted the song as his) re-wrote it to make it something distinct and new which he could own. 

The earliest reported version is said to be by ?Davis and Stafford? in 1915,  which is said to feature a man named Campbell cheating at cards and fixing an election, but I have not been able to locate the source for that or the full lyrics.  It seems possible that this was original, but by no means certain.  The first recording however, was the Whistler Jug Band in 1924.

This recording seems to be a clear antecedent to the Blake version, starting with the well known lines about electoral shenanigans and ending with the lines about a girl who' stole money from the singer's pocket.  It was interesting to note this line : ?Remember that last election when the white folks was in action, trying to elect a president?, which offers a slightly different perspective on the roots of the song.  The specific reference to a ?white folks? election disappears in later versions, though the theme remains.

There was another jug band recording in 1927 by Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band.  This version again starts with the election tale, though the name of the ?great promoter? is different.  That suggests to me that the song had been doing the rounds for a long time and many variations had developed by this time- the names and details seem to vary version by version, rather than being copied / borrowed from other recordings.  The name of the lady who ends up in the graveyard is  ?Isla? or ?Ida? as in the Whistler version.

Jim Jackson recorded the song and the lyrics have already been Weenied:

I had a friend named Campbell, he used to steal and gamble
He made his living cheating all the while
He played a game called euchre, pinochle and poker
He thought he was the smartest dude in town
But I just found up Monday, he got locked up Sunday
They've got him in that jailhouse down in town
They got Campbell in the jail, no one to go his bail
The judge won't even accept him a fine

REFRAIN: He's in the jailhouse now, he's in the jailhouse now
I told Campbell once or twice,
"Stop playing cards and shooting dice." (spoken: Yeah, they got 'im!)
He's in the jailhouse now

I remember 'way last Friday, I met a girl named Lani
I thought she was the purtiest girl in town
She called me "Sonny", and I begin to spend my money
We went into a swell cafe and sit down
I thought that I was in it, I was spendin' every minute
Buyin' wine and whiskey by the quart
But when I went to pay that man, I found that lady's hand
In my pocket where my money was

REFRAIN: She's in the graveyard now, she's in the graveyard now
I told the judge right to his face,
"That lady's hand was out of its place." (spoken: Yeah, they got her!)
She's in the graveyard now

This version is based around Campbell and his gambling and excludes the electoral theme.  The lady in the graveyard is Lottie.  (or at least that's what I hear- the Weeniepedia lyrics suggest Lani).  The song is completely different in tone and style- gone is the Vaudeville / Jug band style, replaced by a steady (and pretty slow) boom-chick strummed guitar.

Blakes version was recorded in 1927.  Regrettably, someone has flagged the version for copyright on Youtube and I cannot link to it (at least in the UK- if US links work fine, Id be happy to add...).  Utterly ridiculous given that the song was recorded in 1927 and is clearly out of copyright but....

Perhaps this link will work for now:,he-s-in-the-jailhouse-now,qp35mq.html

Blake's lyrics echo the racial election point raised in the Whistler version.  He sings :? There was a man named Lawton, from New York down to Boston, representing the coloured people we had sent?.

I also noted, listening to this version that Blake appears (to my ear) to sing ?we voted twice? rather than ?he voted twice? as it is usually sung.  If I have understood correctly, Mr Lawton was therefore the organiser of the electoral fraud, to the intended benefit of the ?coloured folk?.  The tune has rather more edge to it, than being simply a vaudeville comedy / novelty song.

The famous Jimmie Rodgers version was recorded on 15 February 1928:

! No longer available

Jimmie's song takes the gambling theme and excludes the electoral references.  I suspect the pointed line from the Whistler version explains why Jimmie's version excluded the election lines.  Alternatively, perhaps the versions which had arrived or become popular in his circles had already excluded it for similar reasons?  Just a  thought.  Certainly there is an ongoing racial / political theme in the versions which carry the election lines.

My firm suspicion is that Jimmie consciously re-wrote to make it his own.  The protagonist in the opening lines is now ?Ramblin Bob?, losing the easy rhyme of ?Campbell? with ?gamble?, and adding the word ?rob? as the rhyme instead. 

The girl in this version is ?Susie? (rhymed with Tuesday) and she doesn't steal from the singer.  Instead they both end up in jail for reasons unexplained following a night on the tiles.  Its a slightly odd departure from the story which runs through the other versions and seems to reinforce the idea of conscious re-writing, perhaps for a different audience.

I had a friend named Ramblin' Bob
Who used to steal, gamble and rob
He thought he was the smartest guy in town

But I found out last Monday
That Bob got locked up Sunday
They've got him in the jailhouse way down town

He's in the jailhouse now, he's in the jailhouse now
I told him once or twice
To quit playin' cards and shootin' dice
He's in the jailhouse now

He played a game called his Poker
He knock on Whist and Euchre
But shootin' dice was his greatest game

Now he's down town in jail
Nobody to go his bail
The judge done said that he refused the fine

He's in the jailhouse now, he's in the jailhouse now
I told him once or twice
To quit playin' cards and shootin' dice
He's in the jailhouse now

I went out last Tuesday
Met a girl named Susie
I told her I was the swellest man around

We started to spend my money
Then she started to call me honey
We took in every cabaret in town

We're in the jailhouse now, we're in the jailhouse now
I told the judge right to his face
We didn't like to see this place
We're in the jailhouse now

Interestingly, he recorded a second version in 1930, reverting to Campbell for his protagonist but again re-writing substantially.  I have not found any atecedents for this set of lyrics so it seems very much to be a Rodgers creation.

I had a friend named Campbell
He used to rob, steal and gamble
He tried everything that was low-down
He was out tom-cattin' one night
When he started a big fight
Then a big policeman came and knocked him down.

He's in the jailhouse now
He's in the jailhouse now
I told him over again
To quit drinking whiskey
Lay off of that gin
He's in the jailhouse now. [Yodel]

Campbell broke jail one day
Decided he'd go away
But the police met him at the train
The cop says I've come for you
Campbell says that this won't do
Because Campbell never my name.

He's in the jailhouse now
He's in the jailhouse now
Yes, he broke out
All over town the fool walked about
He's in the jailhouse now. [Yodel]

I met his old gal Sadie
She said, ?Have you seen my baby??
I told her he was downtown in the can
She went down to the jail
Just to go his bail
She said, ?I've come down here to get my man.?

She's in the jailhouse now
She's in the jailhouse now
So you can understand
Why old kid Sadie's in the can
She's in the jailhouse now. [Yodel]

In the same year the Memphis Jug Band recorded this wonderful version:

! No longer available

Again, there is a racial element to the electoral lines.  In this version Jim Jones visits the polls and votes twice, and then in the chorus we get this line: ?Instead of staying at home letting that white folks' business alone?.  The MJB add new lines to the chorus rather than just repeating the last line of the verse as in other versions.

I remember last election Jim Jones got in the action
Said he?s voting for the man who paid the biggest price
The next day at the poll he voted with heart and soul
But instead of voting once he voted twice
He?s in the jailhouse now
He?s in the jailhouse now
Instead of him staying at home letting those white folks? business alone
He?s in the jailhouse now
You remember Henry Cruise that sold that no good booze
He sold it to the police on the beat
Now Henry?s feeling funny, the police gave him marked money
He?s got a ball and chain around his feet
He?s in the jailhouse now
He?s in the jailhouse now
The judge gave him two years and Henry?s shedding tears
He?s in the jailhouse now
Son was walking down the street, a little chick he chanced to meet
Went to every cabaret in town
He bought lots of liquor, troubles got thicker
Now Son is jailhouse bound
He?s in the jailhouse now
He?s in the jailhouse now
If he?s got a political friend, judge the sentence he will suspend
He?s in the jailhouse now
Jim Johnson liked to roam around, flirt with every gal in town
Until he flirted with Benny?s wife
Benny cut him in the face, nah, it?s a disgrace
But now he?s graveyard bound
He?s in the jailhouse now
He?s in the jailhouse now
Benny was his friend, instead of letting that matter end
He?s in the jailhouse now

Many versions have been recorded since, taking distinctly from one branch of the song with all sorts of variations.  I'll finish this post by simply adding a couple of my favourites:

Pokey LaFarge does a great take on the MJB version:

Dom Flemons takes the same version and applies some mighty banjo...

Wonderful post, Simon - I'm looking forward to sitting down with it later!

I'd also like to publicly thank you for agreeing at the last minute to move your spot up two weeks - you really save the day! Thank you! :)

Prof Scratchy:
Great choice, Simon. British folkies may remember that Hamish Imlach always featured this song in his set. Looking forward to sifting through these song examples.

Really a nice job of presenting the song and different version, Simon!  I look forward to hearing all of them, and perhaps especially the unfamiliar ones.
All best,

One-Eyed Ross:
great stuff.  I've heard most of these, but hadn't found the Whistler's Jug Band version, nor the Louisville Jug Band.  Good finds.


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