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The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow

The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow: The Story of the Prisonaires

John Dougan
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow
    Book Description:

    Early in the morning on June 1, 1953, five African American men boarded a van to make the 200mile trip from Nashville to Memphis for a daylong recording session at the legendary Sun Studios, to be overseen by Sun founder Sam Phillips. One of the two tracks cut that day, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” would go on to become a regional R&B hit, Sun Records’ biggest record of the preElvis era. It would, however, be the group’s only hit. They were the Prisonaires, a vocal quintet who had honed their skills while inmates at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. In this book, John Dougan tells the story of the Prisonaires, their hit single, and the afterlife of this one remarkable song. The group and the song itself represent a compelling concept: imprisoned men using music as a means of cultural and personal survival. The song was rerecorded by white singer Johnnie Ray, who made it a huge hit in 1956. Over the years, other singers and groups would move the song further away from its origins, recasting the deep emotions that came from creating music in a hostile, controlled environment. The story of the Prisonaires, for all of its triumphs, reflects the disappointment of men caught in a paradoxical search for personal independence while fully cognizant of a future consigned to prison. Their brief career and the unusual circumstances under which it flourished sheds light on the harsh realities of race relations in the pre–Civil Rights South. The book also provides a portrait of Nashville just as it was gaining traction as a nationally recognized music center.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-217-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Music, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. PROLOGUE: Poor Old Johnnie Ray
    (pp. 1-7)

    Johnnie Ray needed a hit. His last single, “Johnnie’s Coming Home,” had managed to scrape the bottom ofBillboard’s Top 100 singles chart only to vanish within a week. Not helping matters was that America was firmly ensconced in the post-Elvis era, and rock and roll, for anyone still harboring doubts, was for real. A seismic cultural shift that made Ray’s heavily orchestrated middle-of-the-road (MOR) pop as well his overblown, stagey vocal style, which had earned him the sobriquet the Prince of Wails, sound pejoratively old school. To return to chart prominence and make a case for his continued relevance...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Nashville
    (pp. 8-18)

    The year 1880 was one of celebration in Nashville. The city was one hundred years old and poised on the brink of its first period of rapid economic and industrial growth, developments that would last until 1915 and cement its status as a thriving, modern southern city. In his Centennial address Mayor Thomas Kercheval documented in somewhat flamboyant prose the city’s growth: “The tangled jungles once the covert of wild beasts and wild men are now the homes of the teeming and busy population. The shriek of the locomotive and the hum of industry is heard instead of the howl...

  6. CHAPTER TWO The Prisonaires
    (pp. 19-30)

    In an interview with Cass Paley, Johnny Bragg fondly recalled the singers who made up the Prisonaires: “[They were] a bunch of good guys: Edward Thurman, William Stewart, Marcel Sanders, John Drue; nice people. And they could sing too, good talent. And they loved everybody, they wasn’t the type that hated people. They was good guys. Happy go lucky all the time. And we never blew the privilege. We never broke the rules. When we were going out singing all over the state, we always did the right thing. Always.”

    At the time of his sentencing for first degree murder...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Prison, the Governor, and the Warden
    (pp. 31-47)

    The Tennessee State Penitentiary, the state’s first prison, opened in Nashville in 1831. Previously, offenders had been housed in county jails, and although the idea of a state prison system seemed like a good idea, it wasn’t long before the facility had outlived its usefulness. In 1898 the new Main Prison opened in Cockrill Bend in West Nashville. An imposing gothic fortress constructed of Pikeville sandstone and white brick, the new state penitentiary had eight hundred single-occupancy cells measuring six by six by eight feet and latticed doors that maximized light and ventilation. There was no wood in the construction,...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Men Singing Together
    (pp. 48-55)

    It is impossible to imagine a time when Johnny wasn’t singing, if only for fun and what little pocket change he earned working the streets of north Nashville. In prison, however, singing took on far greater meaning, becoming both a strategy for surviving the institution’s routinized brutality and a way of creating a less oppressive alternative reality. Johnny was regularly beaten by guards and other inmates: “They never did beat me like they would some of them, but they used to beat me.”¹ Raised in a religious household, Johnny didn’t experience a full-fledged, postincarceration evangelical rebirth, but he “did a...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Music City, USA
    (pp. 56-63)

    Two decades before it became internationally known as “Music City, U.S.A.,” a recording and music publishing hub built on hillbilly, gospel, and rhythm and blues music, Nashville was a radio town. In the spring of 1922, WDAA, broadcasting from the campus of Ward-Belmont finishing school, one of the South’s preeminent women’s academies and the alma mater of one Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, or, as she was more widely known, Minnie Pearl, became Nashville’s first radio station. “Invisible waves really were spreading out from the school’s roofs like ripples in an ethereal pond,” writes the cultural historian Craig Havighurst, “racing north...

  10. CHAPTER SIX “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”
    (pp. 64-100)

    Incarceration did not keep the Prisonaires from experiencing Nashville’s seismic and diverse musical transformation. As stifling as life was under Glenn Swafford, he did allow the inmates to have radios and record players, and the outside musical world also found its way inside as the penitentiary became a regular tour stop for the Grand Ole Opry stars George Morgan, Carl Smith, Cowboy Copas, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, and Little Jimmy Dickens, some of them brought there by Colonel Tom Parker in the years before he met Elvis. For many of the performers there was an added bonus and ulterior motive...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN What’ll You Do Next?
    (pp. 101-112)

    Marcel Sanders and John Drue were the first Prisonaires to be paroled. Sanders, who had refused release a year earlier, was effectively thrown out of the penitentiary on October 6, 1954. Drue, whose application for parole had been denied, was now deemed sufficiently rehabilitated and released. Proving the accuracy of his pessimistic preliminary inmate assessment, Drue violated the terms of his parole when he and an accomplice, Jack Birdsong, broke into the Kenneth O. Lester Company produce house and stole four hundred pounds of frozen chickens. Convicted of larceny and of receiving and concealing stolen property, Drue was sentenced to...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 113-120)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 121-128)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 129-132)