Blue Notes

Goree prison unit inmate Hattie Ellis had a short-lived recording career, but her music made a lasting impression.
Hattie Ellis with an all-black ensemble performing for WBAP.

HER NAME WAS HATTIE ELLIS and she was, like so many of the women who came to the Goree State Farm in the thirties, a mystery. All that can be known about her comes from meager scraps of information—a trial transcript, the few references to her in the transcripts of the WBAP radio show Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls, and some mentions of her in the Echo, the newspaper written and edited by Texas prison inmates.

What I did learn about Hattie before her arrival at Goree was that she was a black woman in Dallas who had been described as "a bootlegging sister"—which probably meant that she worked for a bootlegger or was a bootlegger herself. Perhaps another indication of her lifestyle can be gleaned from the comment she once made in court: "I never have paid any fines for being a prostitute." When she was just twenty years old, Hattie was sentenced to thirty years at Goree for murdering another black woman named Henrietta Murphy, who worked at the Mercantile Bank as a maid. According to trial testimony, Henrietta and some other women had come to Hattie's house, wanting to buy whiskey for a dollar from Hattie's boyfriend. Hattie didn't sell them any whiskey, and she and Henrietta got into an argument. Henrietta, who was apparently drunk, urinated on Hattie's floor. Later, Hattie drove up to Henrietta's house in a little black roadster, talked to her for a few minutes while sitting in the car, then opened the front door, got out, grabbed Henrietta by the coat, drew a pistol, and shot her in the stomach and then in the back. There was testimony that Henrietta had threatened Hattie during an earlier argument over a dollar. Hattie herself testified that she had not pulled out her pistol until Henrietta came after her with a razor. But a judge and jury were not convinced.

In my Texas Monthly story, I spent several paragraphs describing life inside Goree. What especially fascinated me was the way the entire prison was segregated. The black inmates—and there were twice as many black women as white women in the prison—were kept in their own dormitory. They ate their meals there, away from the white women, and during church services and on movie nights, they had to sit in their own area. I assume it was the black women who were given the harder jobs—tending to the crops, working the dairy cattle, picking the fruit from the orchard—while the white women were given the jobs in the main office or in the prison's garment factory. I also assume that in those racially hostile years, the black inmates were treated more harshly than the white ones.

Which makes it all the more amazing to me that soon after the March 1938 unveiling of Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls, the WBAP radio show featuring musical acts by Texas prison inmates, Hattie Ellis was brought onstage to sing the blues. The show's announcer would introduce her as the "blues singing Negro girl" or "the dusky Goree vocalist," and she performed such songs as "Sugar Blues," "St. Louis Blues," "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones," "Heart and Soul," "Stormy Weather," and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby."

The fact that she was featured week after week is only one indication of how good she was. (There were numerous inmates trying out for one of the slots on the show.) One of the writers in the Echo complimented her for her "Ella Fitzgerald imitations." Another columnist wrote, "Her voice makes you wish a million times 'you hadn't done it' or hadn't got caught, maybe." When Reable Childs, one of the leading characters in my Texas Monthly story, was writing the "Across the Back Fence" gossip column for the Echo about life inside Goree, she made a special point of singling out Hattie's singing ability. Hattie, she wrote poetically, was "shining in our own little sky above our back yard, and we clasp hands on the back porch to dream little dreams that are made of star dust."

During my research, I came across a photo of Hattie standing at a microphone with an all-black ensemble behind her. She was raw-boned, with an almost mournful look. I was desperate to know what she sounded like. One of the tragedies about this story is that the original recordings of the radio show had been thrown away years ago by WBAP. I had found the transcripts to the show—which was a discovery in itself—but I assumed all the actual voices of those performers had been stilled forever.

But then, the researcher who helped me on this story, Allan McCormack, called to tell me he had found something on a Library of Congress Web site. The famous folk music archivist, John Lomax, who in the thirties had traveled through the South making recordings of black American musicians, had also gone to Texas to record many of the black prisoners in the Texas prison system. One of those he recorded was Hattie Ellis. I can only guess that Lomax knew about her because he too had heard her sing on the radio show. McCormack told me that Lomax's recordings of four of Hattie's songs were at the Library of Congress and could be accessed through the Internet.

This is truly beautiful, haunting, ethereal singing. The songs are classic pieces from that time in our country's history: "I Ain't Got Nobody," "Desert Blues," and "It's a Blessin' Jes' to Call My Savior's Name." "Cap'n Don't 'low No Truckin'-round in Here" could be her own composition about life at Goree and the stern manager who ran the prison, "Captain" Marcus Heath.

You can't help but listen to these songs and wonder what Hattie could have been if her own life had turned a different way. But that's another part of the mystery about Hattie. On May 6, 1940, she received a "conditional pardon," which was the term used back then

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