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The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow

The Story of the Prisonaires

John Dougan

Publication Year: 2012

Early in the morning on June 1, 1953, five African American men boarded a van to make the 200-mile 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 pre-Elvis 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 re-recorded 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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-v


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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

The trip from idea to finished book wasn’t a strange one, but it sure was long. As a result there are many people to whom I am indebted. Many thanks to Rachel Rubin, Jeff Melnick, and Brian Halley at University of Massachusetts Press for their enthusiasm, insight, encouragement, and, perhaps most important, patience. Thanks also to the press’s anonymous readers, whose suggestions made this a stronger, more nuanced work...

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Prologue: Poor Old Johnnie Ray

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pp. 1-7

Johnnie Ray needed a hit. His last single, “Johnnie’s Coming Home,” had managed to scrape the bottom of Billboard’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...

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1. Nashville

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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...

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2. The Prisonaires

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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...

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3. The Prison, the Governor, and the Warden

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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...

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4. Men Singing Together

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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...

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5. Music City, USA

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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...

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6. “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”

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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...

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7. What’ll You Do Next?

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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...


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pp. 113-120


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pp. 121-128

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About the Author, Back Cover

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p. 129

John Dougan grew up in Brookfield, Massachusetts, and earned a PhD in American studies from the College of William & Mary. A former music journalist, he has published essays and reviews in numerous magazines, newspapers, and journals including Rolling Stone, Spin, American Music, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762172
E-ISBN-10: 1613762178
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499683
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499687

Page Count: 144
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 830023497
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow

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Subject Headings

  • Prisonaires (Musical group).
  • Vocal groups -- United States.
  • African American singers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Singers -- United States -- Biography.
  • African American prisoners -- Tennessee -- Biography.
  • Prisoners -- Tennessee -- Biography.
  • Music in prisons -- United States.
  • Popular music -- Tennessee -- Nashville -- History and criticism.
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