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May 19, 2016 11:16 AM   Subscribe

In 1938, as the Great Depression was winding down, a Texas radio station began airing “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls,” a variety show broadcast every Wednesday night from the state prison in Huntsville. The show featured male and female prisoners singing, strumming, dancing, and acting. At one point, it had five million listeners, who sent in as many as a 100,000 fan letters each year. Executions were stayed so that they would not conflict with the show, which was performed in an auditorium 50 yards from Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair.
A Peek at the Golden Age of Prison RadioThe Marshall Project: Nonprofit journalism about criminal justice

"Some of the show’s performers appear on a series of Library of Congress recordings by the folklorist John Avery Lomax, who documented the music of prisoners in the late 1930s. Those recordings are the closest we can get; no recordings of 'Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls' have ever been found."

(Caroline Gnagy's new book is Texas Jailhouse Music - A Prison Band History.)
posted by Atom Eyes (6 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This is equal parts fascinating and horrifying.
posted by Kitteh at 11:28 AM on May 19, 2016

The Huntsville Unit itself is a product of a by-gone era. It's located smack in the middle of the small city of Huntsville, Texas. It's also known by it's nickname - Walls Unit. This is due to the red brick walls that surround the facility. It's odd walking up to it, a portal into another century. Guard towers are positioned on each corner and visibly armed guards watch not only the prison's interior but the surrounding area outside the walls. When I pulled up to photograph the place, the guard nearest me stared at me nearly the entire time I was there, weapon in hand. The unique urban setting of the prison (many modern prisons are built on the outskirts of towns and cities) makes for a job securing the facility that is decidedly different from maintaining security at most prisons in the 21st century. Old Sparky itself is housed in a museum near the Walls Unit and the prison still houses the most active death chamber in the United States, though the electric chair is no longer used.
posted by amcevil at 11:42 AM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I lived in Huntsville as a kid in the 50's. The prison rodeo was a big deal for a sleepy little town. So were (attempted) escapes when the sirens would go off and everybody stayed home behind locked doors. Occasionally you would see a chain gang doing road work and there were always prisoners working the prison farm outside of town watched by guards on horseback, shotguns at the ready. Outside of that, nobody payed much attention to the place...
posted by jim in austin at 12:24 PM on May 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Pretty fascinating. Some of this stuff isn't actually in the past, too. One of my friends mentioned that during their time in Oklahoma, they lived in a town that had one of the major state prisons. Every year, there was the Prison Rodeo, open to the public. Of which apparently the crowning performance was where they stuck a 100 dollar bill to a bull's forehead and let loose a bunch of prisoners into the arena who would compete to pull it off, the prize being keeping it.

Playing guitar seems quite anodyne compared to that!
posted by tavella at 12:25 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

OMG OMG OMG One of the BEST compilations I've ever bought was a CD of 2 shows from the Kingston Penitentiary radio show from the early 50s.

The men's voices were sweet and soft and beautiful. The music they played sounded personal and slightly anachronistic, even for the 50s. It feels SO rural Ontario... It's just a treasure. Looks like it's not available at the gift shop, but if anyone is local to K-Town, mosey on over and pick up a $10.00 copy. It has given me so much pleasure.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:27 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Eastern State Penitentiary has a version of this on their audio tour, where a few dozen prisoners have been recorded singing various songs as part of an art project. One can hear the songs individually on the player during a visit, but at the penitentiary, they're a swell of voices that converge when you're inside the installation.
posted by droplet at 1:29 PM on May 19, 2016

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