O Sister, Where Art Thou?

In the early forties, eight inmates of the Goree prison unit formed one of the first all-female country and western acts in the country, capturing the hearts of millions of radio listeners. Then they nearly all vanished forever.

SHE WAS SITTING IN HER wheelchair in the dayroom, staring at a television that flickered soundlessly in a corner. She didn’t turn her head when I said her name.

“Mrs. McDaniel?” I asked.

“Honey, that’s Mrs. Mozelle Cash,” said a woman sitting with two other women on a couch against the wall. It was last November, just after lunch at the Briarcliff nursing home in Tyler, and the residents were visiting for a few minutes before heading off to their rooms to take their afternoon naps.

“I was looking for Mozelle McDaniel,” I said. “At least that’s what her name used to be.”

“Mozelle McDaniel?” said the woman on the couch. “Who?”

“The Mozelle who used to sing,” I said.

Slowly, the woman watching television moved her head. With a wrinkled hand she tugged at the wheel of her wheelchair and turned to face me. She was thin, painfully thin, her arms like blue-veined Tinkertoys. “I don’t know what she’ll say to you,” said an attendant who happened to be walking by. “She goes in and out. She’s got some senility, you know.”

“I’ve been looking for you for a long, long time,” I quietly said to the woman, handing her some flowers I had bought on my way into town. Then, from my briefcase, I pulled a faded black and white photograph of a group of eight young women, taken in the year 1940. In the photograph, the women are dressed in light tan shirts, brown Western-style skirts, and white cowboy boots, with brown bandannas tied around their necks. They look as lovely as actresses, their skin like porcelain, their hair spilling out in ringlets from beneath white cowboy hats.

For several seconds the 83-year-old woman said nothing. She squinted as if to get the photo in focus. “Mozelle, are you all right?” asked another of the ladies on the couch. But she wasn’t paying her friends any attention. She began to point at each of the young women in the photograph.

“What you got there?” said one of the women, lifting herself with the help of her walker to get a better look at the photograph. “Is that you, Mozelle, in that cowgirl outfit? Why are you girls dressed up that way?”

Mozelle’s eyes remained glued to the photo. For a few moments, I assumed her mind was adrift, lost in a long-ago world. But then she stirred in her chair, and she turned her pale, watery eyes toward her friend.

“We just did a little singing,” she finally said. “That’s all we did, a little singing.”

ACTUALLY, THEY WERE ONCE A national sensation, one of the first all-female country and western musical groups in history. They called themselves the Goree All Girl String Band, and every Wednesday evening in the early forties, an estimated seven million Americans tuned their radios to WBAP in Fort Worth—then a 50,000-watt clear-channel station that was able to broadcast its signal across the country—just so they could listen to a musical variety show that featured the group. The Goree Girls, as they were popularly known, received fan letters from around the country. Their male admirers sent them candy, money, flowers, and handwritten marriage proposals. Some of their fans traveled for hundreds of miles just to get a glimpse of them during those Wednesday night radio shows, which were always broadcast live from an auditorium in the East Texas town of Huntsville.

At the end of the shows, many in the crowd would push toward the stage to try to get the Goree Girls’ autographs. But the band members never had much time to linger. They were quickly escorted away by uniformed guards and driven in a van down U.S. 75 to a two-story dark-brick building a few miles south of Huntsville with a sign in front that read “Goree State Farm.” At the time, the Goree State Farm was Texas’ sole penitentiary for women, and the Goree Girls were convicted criminals, serving time for such felonies as theft, robbery, cattle rustling, and murder.

It is a story that seems almost impossible to believe: a group of female convicts, few of whom had ever played a musical instrument or taken voice lessons, forming a country and western band and becoming, at least in Texas, the Dixie Chicks of their day. It is also a story that has been almost entirely forgotten. Today, when music historians write about the first female stars of country music, they mention the popular cowgirl singer Patsy Montana; the bluegrass vocalists Maybelle and Sarah Carter, of the Carter Family; Louise Massey Mabie, who was heralded as the “original rhinestone cowgirl” when she sang for NBC radio programs in New York in the late thirties; and the Girls of the Golden West, two sisters who claimed to be from Muleshoe but were actually Illinois farm girls. Perhaps because the Goree All Girl String Band never made a record or went on a national tour, the group does not even rate a footnote from the historians.

I too had never heard of the Goree Girls until a few years ago, when I came across a photograph of the group hanging on the back wall of the cluttered Texas Prison Museum, which was then located in a small storefront on Huntsville’s town square. They seemed so strangely innocent, these Depression-era women dressed in their Dale Evans-like cowgirl garb. None of them was over the age of thirty. When I asked one of the museum’s volunteers if anyone there knew their names, he said, “I don’t think so.” He paused and stared at the photograph. “But they sure must have been something.”

Soon, I was scouring libraries, reading old newspapers, digging up Texas Prison System documents from the thirties and forties, and hiring a researcher to find anyone still alive who had been connected in any way with the original Goree All Girl String Band. My search would take me all over Texas and even on to Virginia and California. I was determined to find out what had happened to these women who had been able to mesmerize

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