Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Prison Cell Blues" - Blind Lemon Jefferson


Set Three: Songs; Disc Two; Track Five: "Prison Cell Blues" performed by Blind Lemon Jefferson. "Vocal solo with guitar." Recorded in Chicago in February, 1928. Original issue Paramount 12622B (20388-2).

For biographical information on Blind Lemon Jefferson, see the entry for "Rabbit Foot Blues."

"Prison Cell Blues" is the last of four songs in a row to deal with prisons.

Getting tired of sleeping in this lowdown lonesome cell.
Lord, I wouldn't have been here if it had not been for Nell.

Lay awake at night and just can't eat a bite.
Used to be my rider but she just won't treat me right.

Got a red-eyed captain and a squabbling boss.
Got a mad dog sergeant, honey, and he won't knock off.

I'm getting tired of sleeping in this lowdown lonesome cell.
Lord, I wouldn't have been here if it had not been for Nell.

I asked the government to knock some days off my time.
Well, the way I'm treated, I'm about to lose my mind.

I wrote to the governor, please turn me a-loose.
Since I don't get no answer, I know it ain't no use.

I'm getting tired of sleeping in this lowdown lonesome cell.
Lord, I wouldn't have been here if it had not been for Nell.

I hate to turn over and find my rider gone.
Walking across my floor, Lordy, how I moan.

Lord, I wouldn't have been here if it had not been for Nell.
I'm getting tired of sleeping in this lowdown lonesome cell.


Magnificently performed a little over a year before Jefferson's untimely death, "Prison Cell Blues" is the straightforward lament of a convict. The only thing that requires explanation is the expression "rider." A "rider" was a girlfriend or sexual partner. "Riding" is one of the most common euphemisms for the sex act found in the blues of this period (others are "grinding" and "balling the jack").

In his notes, Smith points out that the long runs at the end of each line are typical of the Texas and Louisiana vocal style. He also notes that "the device used in this song of reversing the line order of the first verse to produce the final line" was still frequently employed by blues musicians in the early 1950s.

"Prison Cell Blues" is the second of three songs by Jefferson to appear on the Anthology and the first of two songs by Jefferson in a row. The next selection is perhaps Jefferson's most famous composition, "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."

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Unable to find a video featuring a performance of "Prison Cell Blues" (Steve Earle performs it in The Harry Smith Project, but it is not available online), we substitute a version of Jefferson's "One Dime Blues" performed by frankie12string.



Download and listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson - "Prison Cell Blues"

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