My Little Red Book

Texas Jailhouse Music: A Prison Band History

Caroline Gnagy

My Little Red Book

Equal parts historical literature and music journalism, Caroline Gnagy's Texas Jailhouse Music is a poignant work venturing inside the Texas state prison system amidst the Great Depression where inmates often led unexpected lives of musical creativity and expression. Through radio shows (WBAP's Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls) and event performances (Texas Prison Rodeo), prisoners gained "a sense of accomplishment, belonging to a group, and a fervent hope of release." While the story remains optimistic, Gnagy gives an unflinching account of prison horrors including solitary confinement and forced female sterilization. Central to the book are the inmates. From cold-blooded murderers to death-row prisoners and petty burglars, all are captivating. Giving a balanced account of men and women of different races and backgrounds, Gnagy mentions Hattie Ellis, a young black inmate whose voice was reminiscent of Billie Holiday; Leadbelly, a charismatic inmate who was pardoned after writing a freedom song for the governor; Reable Childs, a banjo player who performed with the Goree All-Girl String Band, and more. A testament to the redemptive power of music, Texas Jailhouse Music proves that every story is worth telling – even those confined by prison bars.

Texas Jailhouse Music: A Prison Band History

by Caroline Gnagy
Arcadia Publishing & the History Press, 192 pp., $21.99 (paper)
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Texas state prison system, Summer Reading 2016, Hattie Ellis, Billie Holiday, Lead Belly, Reable Childs, Goree All-Girl String Band

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