Jail House Ballads
Oils, Oil Pastels and Archival Ink on Canvas
Imagined Realities from an Old Jail House.
Jail House Ballads was first exhibited at Arts Illiana in Terre Haute. The text was performed live by 16 local actors, like a play, and ran 70 min.
I keep my head covered and sleep deep inside your Fever Dreams and wake good and gone before you brush your teeth, like a mist on leaves falling from tall trees. I spin on my own time and hide in the tangles of your hair. I know secrets and sleep naked where rabid rattlers wouldn’t dare slither. All that said, being a Preacher, I tend to choose Lightness from the darkness. I always give the benefit of doubt to all a you damn criminals, soaked in the soot of shame, and, if you wake before me with a notion to enact retribution upon me, know that I will return the favor prompt and bring about a turn you ain’t never gonna wake up from. I got inner sanctum access protecting me, and all you got is the rain.
Hobo came to me out of a pitch in the road asking for a safe place to sleep the night he might find. He was a No. 1, so I took him to Widow Cross. Even threw him some tobacco and Bread. We got to talking about a sight he happened upon, a train from Chicago, he said “Plenty of Paper and even gold and silver coin.” I read him as he spun it, no signs of lying, so I threw him more bread and cracked my Rye Whiskey. Hobo to Hobo, we set upon first light to make a hide where he said that train stopped before switching tracks. Sure enough that train did stop and we marked out a devised plan, level headed enough. Next dusk, we went up that side ladder and inside down that hole into the car. Safe locked, we waited Quiet. The young Porter entered 3 hours in and we tied him with heavy string, my knife to throat. He acquiesced and opened the safe wide. We forgot extra sacks and used our pockets and canvas carries was laying around. Off we rode, someplace out of someplace, for we had little knowledge of the area we happened to find ourselves in. All we had were stars to guide us in, direction-wise. Being Hobo, I got to say one time fore I disappear, why I done it was for MONEY, on account of skipping after serving Infantry, Honorably, both me and him, and most other Hobo. We even did serve not far from one another, even was commanded by the same General Farlane, only at different times . Special to state: We Did Hurt No One to rob that train. Honest. Well, our pockets were so ragged they split upon hitting the ground, exiting the train in movement, and sad, we did lose some fortune. The canvas bags held, but what we did not think fore thought-wise, was how the sight of two Hobo lugging as many full loaded canvas Official train bags might appear to the Bulls or to any body might take the sight in. Sadly, that was our Demise. A Bull happened to catch a glimpse and did arrest him and me both to throw us into a warm Boodle jail which ain’t a bad place to be in winter, till the spring come.
Folks, they make their bets, take em serious. Their life edges their bets, Study em with their morning coffee. Make a mint on Monday, gives em hope for Tuesday. Me, I’m at the Track every day, I don’t eat them hot dogs, Steer clear a Soda. I can exist on eggs. I’m Simplistic. I'm the pal who takes the bets. Even here I guide the bets. Nobody cares, even the Guards don’t care, they game, too. A fella broke, I give him stones. Red Stones, he flush. Learned the game at 6 from Frank Carata, the presser. He taught me dice, cards, and loading. My 2nd Home, this cozy Jail. I get 3 square meals and I sleep like rain.
Business. Rules. Education. Family. Car. Cheerios. Ties. Steak knives. Typewriter. Cheeseburgers 2 times a week, with raw onion. Summer days spent poolside, filled up with a hose. Winter, we’d go bowling, as we owned balls and shoes. By way of telling / My bench. Lunch Bench. Next to me that day, an envelope which evidently contained items belonging to a bank I had never heard of or seen. If it were not for the man framed me, I’d have had a life. I was eating Lorna’s egg salad on rye, drinking coffee, cold from morning, watching squirrels in the trees. A pure blue sky above, free of airplane. The man reading the newspaper got up from the bench, leaving the envelope. I saw the Policemen walking towards me. I was in the wrong place, wrong time. Simple. He walked off. The Police took me, grabbed the envelope and threw into the trunk. Man who left the envelope was watching this. 2.8 years served by me without sense or REASON. One Day Later, promptly upon my release, I was back on that bench Thinking. Finding myself Wifeless and Childless, All I could think of was that bank. So, I thought deep where I was able to come up with a plan, based on Intellect and Resentment. Certain Conversations were had in jail and I learned of the art of Bank Robbery. Having a Criminal Record, a broken Heart and Spirit, Lost Faith and No More Loving Family, I chose my path. Not only did I take that Bank Solo and with no weapon, I took it with a smile and wearing a Yellow tie. Like a gentleman. With a heavy sack of that bank’s money, I went back to sit on my bench, to give my near future some direction. My chosen path was focused on Honor. I walked that sack direct back to Jail Where I dropped it on the ground, Surrendering myself, A Gentleman. I chose my way for to state That If A Man Like Me is to be locked away in a Jail House, Best it Be to serve time for The Reason of Bank Robbery than for No Reason At All.
Criminal Born and Raised and there is a pride to this. A Calling. An Art akin to Farming. Generations back my folks took a route to Live Outside the Law. It is our given right to Live the way we see fit. Society ours for picking. Years back not too many I would have been writ about in nickel Books like Frank and Jesse James. Kids know my name. Now I m just a crook.
You take away a man’s life for walking Road without a dime and on a chain gang 25 years stint, you take the burning of your town on down.
If some Demon comes forth to Love me through the gates of lower Paradise with wings as bright as Angels eyes and a coat of gold. Please give me Strength to walk on by with my heart as Pure as Thine.
My name is Preston, gave to me by a newspaper blew over the borderline from the United States of America. I come out of Navajo Nation. Called New Mexico maybe. In 19+26, I made my way out to Chicago to hear a song sung by Charley Patton who sung out the song from the trunk of a Ford car. Two traveling city men worked the song machine while their Ford was broken in a gasoline station I sold gasoline for food and board. They took me to Chigcago, so cold my breath did freeze. The lady from Salvation Army gave me a coat. Also soup. Stayed there 3 weeks till Mr. Charley Patton come to Town. One of the music men gave me a job to Catalogue his tapes for real money and he gave me guitar to learn on. Bukka White told me “If you Ramble, take a guitar, else jail." One night, I got a bus with pay to see what a bus felt like and got lost to sleep under a covered bridge and Police did not take me back to my Salvation Army but to the jail house Where I could never leave. They let me leave when butterflies come. They did let me play guitar in Jail and that is why I am a Songster.
He took me to the river, to the covered bridge upon we met. I had a thought he would propose, like he told me so he’d do that day. My body was his only motion. Pinned down hard in the mud near the bridge, my red dress I wore for reasons discussed in private my love and I, reasons of our marriage vows and of such things a lady does for her man to be. Between the pounding, from my boot, I held the razor he gifted me to protect myself and from left to right across his throat, exactly like he taught me. Thought I saw happiness in his dying eyes, his face raised to Heaven, snapped back, spilling in a warm flow of deep red pumping liquid to match my dress. Ain’t life funny. I don’t care if I hang. I’ll do and I will prove my pure love to the Saints and Angels. The truth is writ in the flow of the river under the bridge upon we met. Where we took out Love Vows, forever indelible. I will die a Lady of my own. Untarnished in Name, Body and Soul. A man ought to be more honest. If it was only my body he wanted, all he had to do was ask. I’d have given freely. Lovingly. Amen. Alemeda Sue Jenkins, 1905.
My brother brings me home baked muffins every day, but the girls steal em fore I can eat em. It was a Red Gibson put me in here and trying to get my hands on that guitar was worth every day I spend in this jail, and every stolen muffin that boy can bake. I chose to do my time rather than give that Gibson back. Soon as I get out this confine, I’m gonna dig her up from where I put her, hit the road to Clarksdale, make my Ruby Red guitar sing. Sure hope she ain’t warped, but if she is, I’ll learn her warped. That’s how much I love her, my red Gibson guitar, who's name, it is Ruby Red.
Submarine Here. Nuthouse. “Sane”. What they call me, Who I am, different from night and day. I’m a Pontiff. Got a hat and Robe. Wear Red. They let me wear my colors Sundays. Court Order. I got something wrong with me, allows me to see Visions. Got a crack in my psyche that lets the light in. Got a Dixie Cup and String hook up to On High. I suspend rules based on Whispers in the night. Did a stint in the Nuthouse ain’t gonna lie. Had a penchant for finding shiny metal objects and sharpening them in total silence. I used them to carve words in the Skins of inmates. Doc saw these words as wounds inflicted. "Here is a wound inflicted", I told him, “How about being stuffed into a trunk in the attic for weeks at a time at the age of six, fed cat food and filled with Rye whiskey, beat with a bowling pin, when not forced to be a ventriloquist dummy?” Doc, he just stared and nodded. I lunged and away went his face, torn by my sharpened teeth. They deemed me “SANE” after that, cause deeming me anything but SANE would have kept me in their realm. Now, I live in the Jailhouse Hole. Dark, like a trunk in the attic. Home, Sweet Home. Cut cord. EAT. Baked Fresh Daily. Quit Drowning Me. Disenfranchised. James. Send a Message to Mary But Don’t Tell Her I’m in Hell.
Called himself a “Magician”. Took a flair, a flair, to my Gianiana. To my sweet woman. Mine. Opened the door to his Buick. She slithered inside. They headed for Indiana. Caught them at a diner. Two meatloaf dinners with coffee. I Stood there by the Buick. Waited for them to Digest their pie. They saw me, but were not Impressed. The machete took their bodies to the ground, Breathing still. Their heads hovered at Height for a slow count of 3. Then, they were surprised and also Impressed. My shoes were clean. He had a mole on his cheek. Flair, that Magician, for my sweet Gianiana, my own, Mine. Upon entry to the Buick, I felt comfort. I felt secure. That old Buick rides like Magic.
Born, it gives me the Right to Live the way I see fit, Work, Eat, Sleep. Not any Man Beast Born, take Right away from me. Blacksmith made it to my specifications. My fit and weight, told him details, paid cash money. Banks, like trees growing apples, free for picking. Nobody moved, just like I asked. I watched the volcano Born in me take to putting use to the Blacksmith’s Iron Club he made to my Specifications and 6 lives bled out through the floor Before my Breakfast. Wasn’t the money for me. For me, Born needed to be Defined. I go to Lord with eyes Open. My name writ on wall, Block Letters THOMAS WHITE HALL. Mark my grave in number gave me by State Illinois of where me Born but never hardly lived.
Me and my brother went down to the station to see what we thought to find. Minding our business with shoe shining boxes and ties we made out of rags and torn clothes that couldn’t be worn no more. She was crying, pointing her fingers, so we looked behind us to see who she was calling out, but who she was calling out was me to the Sergeant who apprehended me straight away. This jail ain’t warm but it sure is warmer any abode I ever come to sleep inside of. And they feed us good every day. Can’t say I got pals and I sure do miss my brother Sidney and Mama but I feel closer to Mama, I do not know why. Sometimes, I wonder if one of these men is my Pa. Every day, I tell them that the man who done what they say I done to that girl is free, but they don’t go find him. If only they would let me out of here, maybe I could go find him instead of being locked in here, not doing anybody any good. I worry a great deal for that poor girl. I hope she is not crying or sad no more. So far, they don’t listen to me. I got Faith, Day to Day. I keep close to what I Love. I keep Mama close and she keep me warm. My Name Ring It! Lester Turner James. Sincerely.
Took a ride. Did a deed. Thought I’d sail through free. Move along. Bad Luck! After I pay this time off, I will go far home and live to work Ranch to day I die and never sleep inside again.
And round we go on and on to Bridges to the trees up where Birds rest free on Branches of Love. Branches of Hope. I got Hope got Love in me Mary, Far Behind me, had a Mama, Love & Home, All Gone. Everybody Love Somebody, Why Not Me? Take your eyes from me. You do not know me, where I been you do not know my name. You do not know my call. Take your eyes from me. Look away. Look through me. That’s who I am.
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