You’re In the Jailhouse Now

Originating in black vaudville, there are two versions of this song, the political version, and its variations, recorded by the African-American act, the Memphis Jug Band, and the de-politicized lyrics of white/blackface performer Jimmie Rodgers. Thanks to its inclusion in the film “O Brother Where Art Thou”, Rodger’s version is much better known. Rodgers had quite a hit with it, and the song is still quite good, but the intent of the original is lost. Rodger’s success is reminicent Pat Boone’s covers of Little Richard tunes – a white artist getting rich of African-Americans.

The earliest version of the lyrics, which are not available online, make reference to “Moses the promoter”, a black man with political ambitions. He runs afoul of the white power structure, and winds up “in the jail house”.

Blind Blake first recorded the song in the early 1920’s as an account of the disenfranchisement of blacks, except for certain “reliable” voters.

Remember last election,
Everybody was in action,
Trying to find themselves a president?
There was a man named Lawson,
From New York, down to Boston,
Representin’ the colored peoples we had sent.

My brother was a voter,
Also a great promoter,
Goin’ ’round giving advice.
Says, “Go down to the poll and vote,”
‘Stead of voting once, he voted twice.

He’s in the jailhouse now (2x)
We got him downtown in jail,
No one to go his bail,
He’s in the jailhouse now.

Compare with revised “White” version originally recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in 1927. All political content has been removed, and the story has become one of pure rowdiness and retribution.

I had a friend named Ramblin’ Bob
Who used to steal gamble and rob
He thought he was the smartest guy around.
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
Stop playin’ cards and shootin’ dice
He’s in the jailhouse now.

Bob liked to play his poker…
Pinoccle with Dan Yoker…
But shooting dice was his favorite game.
He got throwed in jail…
With nobody to pay his bail…
The judge done said that he refused a fine.

He’s in the jailhouse now.
He’s in the jailhouse now.

I told him once or twice…
Quit playin’ cards and shootin’ dice.
He’s in the jailhouse now.

I went out last Tuesday…
Met a gal named Susie…
I said I was the swellest guy 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.

Rodger’s verion is the best known today, due to its inclusion in the “O, Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. The political corruption subplot of “O, Brother…” seems like an appropriate opportunity to include the original lyrics, but the movie does not depict African-Americans as political actors. The character of the Black guitar player Tommy Johnson (played by Chris Thomas King) only appears to serve as back up for the band. Like Rodgers did for Blind Blake, the originators contribution is appropriated and never appreciated.

The 1930 version by the The Memphis Jug Band preserves a verse or two of the original political content of the lyrics, but they are already being subsummed into Rodgers reframing of the contest between whites and blacks. The story dissolves into a series of tales of sin and comeuppance.

He’s in the Jailhouse Now
Memphis Jug Band (1930)

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

Links:
He’s In The Jailhouse Now : The Memphis Jug Band

He’s In The Jailhouse Now (Jimmie Rodgers version) : The Soggy Bottom Boys

Chords:
verse:
C, C
C, G
G, G
D7, G7
chorus:
C, C
F, F
G, G
G, C

Reference:
*
Roosevelt’s Blues: African-American Blues and Gospel Songs on FDR

Google Groups discussion re: “You’re In the Jailhouse Now”
* Discovering Ink: A Mentor for an Historical Ethnography
Kornblum The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.2004; 595: 176-189

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Posted on November 30, 2006, in MP3, Music. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi, this is a comment.
    To delete a comment, just log in, and view the posts’ comments, there you will have the option to edit or delete them.

  2. Great analysis. I know this song in the Mephis Jug Band version and the Oh Brother version, and I was wondering how the political chicanery, which is the best part, got disappeared.

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