Album Review: Jail House Bound: John Lomax’s First Southern Recordings, 1933

Soul music’s spirited history comes alive with latest John Lomax release.

Perhaps most important to the blues pantheon was famed ethnomusicologist John Lomax’s insistence on targeting isolated African American communities. On the latest field recording issue, publishers West University Press and Global Jukebox have narrowed down 24 tracks for Jail House Bound: John Lomax’s First Southern Recordings, 1933.

About the time of the recordings, the social evolution of desegregation was almost underway. Lomax was concerned with capturing the innate qualities of Negro folk music before popular culture and terrestrial radio assimilated with the Southern vernacular. At these prisons, Lomax tapped the foundation of blues music at its purest source.

Compared to other field recording compilations, the quality of Jail House Bound is almost immaculately clean. At times, it’s free from hisses and spotty blips. The forlorn work hollers come through with a necessary roughness.  There’s also a testament to the power of rhythms among the working-class poor. The downbeats and upbeats are easily synchronized to plodding hammers on steel railroad tracks.  “In the prison camps we found the Negros completely isolated from the whites,” Lomax said in one archived interview.   “They lived in separate dormitories, they ate together. They had no contact with the whites whatsoever except for their guards, and then purely in official relations,” he added.

Lomax would discover Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter at a state prison in 1934. However, the prisoners on Jail House Bound remain mostly nameless. The wide selection of subject matter and layers of music from varied locations provide a link to the overarching socioeconomic conditions of the era as well. The project presents rousing Negro spirituals (“Good God Almighty”) and folk archetypes (“John Brown”) with equal measure. For the most part, the musicianship bubbles around an intermediate level. But there’s a liveliness on display here that can be easily traced to early rock n’ roll culture.

In his piece for Jazz and Blues, music historian Ron Wynn noted that “(b)oth (Lomax’s) admirers and detractors will find material that fits their assessment of him, but one thing isn’t in doubt. Had he not made this and many other trips we would have no idea about a host of vintage songs, among them the ones available on this outstanding anthology.”  The history recorded on these 24 tracks is essential for fans of modern soul music, too. The underlying parts of modern black styles come into full focus. One should be so lucky just to hear the formation of an entire musical culture.

For more information about the project, visit the official website at

–Joey Hood

Joey Hood has been writing about musicians since 2003. His byline has appeared in “American Songwriter,” “Nashville Scene,”, NPR and “Ya’ll.” He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mass communication from Middle Tennessee State University with a focus in the recording industry. Read more: Joey Hood |


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