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Ruminating on famous Birmingham Jail
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Ruminating on famous Birmingham Jail

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Gene Owens, columnist

Every time this column mentions some song from way back when, I’m rewarded with a response from Joe Wallen of Johnson City, Tenn., who has recordings of every country song since Maybelle Carter started blowing “Wildwood Flower” on a comb.

Joe rose to the bait after I mentioned “Columbus Stockade Blues” in a recent column. He recalled that the song was recorded during the ’20s by a proto-Country Music duet consisting of Jimmie Tarlton and Tom Darby. They also recorded “Birmingham Jail,” he said, and that’s what got both of us ruminating on that famous old hoosegow.

I used to wonder whether “Birmingham Jail” referred to the lock-up in Birmingham, England, or its Alabama namesake. Joe informed me that Jimmie Tarlton claimed credit for “Birmingham Jail.” He said he wrote it while incarcerated there during the 1920s for running moonshine. But Joe figured that Jimmie had been listening to a song called “Down in the Valley,” because if you Google both songs, you’ll find that much of “Birmingham Jail” was taken from “Down in the Valley.”

Which brought up another question: What was it that was blowing “down in the valley” late in the evening? Some versions sing “...late in the evening, hear the wind blow.” Others make it “... hear the train blow.”

That jibes with Joe’s view that Tarlton sort of blended “Birmingham Jail” with “Down in the Valley.” If you were singing about a generic valley, you would probably think of the wind blowing. If you were thinking of Jones Valley, Ala., where Birmingham sprawls today, you’d be thinking about train whistles, which were a major part of Birmingham’s background noise during the early 20th century.

Darby, a native of Columbus, Ga., died in 1971. Tarlton, born in Chesterfield County, S.C., died in 1979. Both were 87 years old at death.

Tarlton’s lyric includes the line, “Write me a letter; send it my mail; send it in care of Birmingham Jail.”

A much-later letter gave Alabama’s Birmingham Jail a new kind of fame. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., was incarcerated there in 1963 after leading a demonstration in defiance of a court injunction and of Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses. Several Alabama clergymen took King to task for meddling in Alabama’s internal affairs. With time on his hands, King penned a gentle 6,855-word rebuttal that concluded with this paragraph: “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of understanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not-far-distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

That letter became part of King’s book of essays titled “Why We Can’t Wait.”

There’s no record of whether King heard the trains blow from his cell, but he later wrote, “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon.”

I thought I’d pass on another comment on Birmingham Jail that I encountered via Google:

“Birmingham Jail has gone from a hell hole to a model of race relations in four years...”

Until late 2000, “it had a ‘deep and longstanding negative culture’ ... Nearly 40 percent of prisoners are from ethnic minorities, while, in 2000, frontline staff were overwhelmingly white.”

But in the past seven years, the jail has increased minority staffers and has won awards for its progress in race relations, characterized by “an absolute commitment to equality for all.”

That information, by the way, came from the Guardian, a leading newspaper in the United Kingdom. The prison involved is the jail in Birmingham, England. The old wing of the Birmingham Jail in Alabama was razed in 1986 and the rest of the prison was extensively remodeled.

Readers may write Gene Owens at 1004 Cobbs Glen Drive, Anderson, S.C. 29621. Or send e-mail to him at WadesDixieco@aol.com.

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