Birmingham Jail (song)

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"Birmingham Jail" is country-blues ballad set to the tune of the popular song "Down in the Valley". The version with lyrics referencing the Birmingham City Jail was known by the mid-1920s. According to one biographer of Lead Belly he performed it for Texas Governor Pat Neff at the Sugarland Penitentiary in 1924. Guitarist Jimmie Tarlton claimed to have written the lyrics in 1925 while he was jailed in Birmingham for moonshining. It was first recorded by Tarlton and his partner Tom Darby on November 10, 1927 in Atlanta, Georgia for Columbia Records.

As recorded by Darby and Tarlton, the lyrics are only slightly modified from the traditional tune:

"Down in the levee; levee so low
Late in the evening, hear that train blow
Hear the train blow love, hear the train blow
Late in the evening, hear the train blow.
Roses love sunshine; violets love dew
Angels in heaven know I love you
Write me a letter; send it by mail
Send it in care of Birmingham jail
Birmingham Jail, love, Birmingham jail
Send it in care of Birmingham jail
Bessie my darlin; Bessie my dear
Bessie I love you, oh yes I do
Down in the meadow, down on my knees
Praying to heaven, give my heart ease
Lighting a candle, singin' so low
Kiss me once more, love, that I might go."

Though it was instant hit for Columbia with over 200,000 copies sold, the pair had agreed to a flat fee of $75 each for the record. They tried to recapture success with a 1928 record called "Birmingham Jail No. 2" and then a different song in 1930 called "New Birmingham Jail", both of which were only modestly successful. Tarlton was invited to the ceremony marking the completion of a new Birmingham Jail in 1937.

Since then the song has been recorded by the Stripling Brothers, Eddy Arnold, Peggy Lee, Roy Acuff, Lead Belly (1948), Michael Martin Murphey, Johnny Bond, Jerry Garcia (1993), Roy Drusky, Slim Whitman and many others, including a convict at Mississippi's Parchman Penitentiary, Roger "Burndown" Garrett, who played it for folk musicologists John Lomax and Ruby Terrill in May 1939.


  • Wolfe, Charles K. (2001) "Darby and Tarlton" in Classic Country: Legends of Country Music. New York, New York: Routledge
  • Freeland, Tom and Chris Smith (2006) "That Dry Creek Eaton Clan: A North Mississippi Murder Ballad of the 1930s." in Robert Springer, ed. Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1578067979
  • Mathews, Burgin (September 10, 2009) "Do That Stomp: 20 Days, 20 Birmingham Songs" Pavo magazine

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