"In the Jailhouse Now" is a novelty blues song originally found in Vaudeville performances from the early twentieth century, usually credited to Jimmie Rodgers. The song’s three verses trace the exploits of Ramblin’ Bob, who cheats at cards and gets caught, while the final verse tells about taking a girl named Susie out on the town and winding up in jail together.
Rodgers’s “In the Jailhouse Now” was recorded February 15, 1928, in Camden, New Jersey, and features Rodgers on vocals and guitar, with Ellsworth T. Cozzens playing banjo. Rodgers included his famous yodel throughout the song. Rodgers recorded a sequel titled “In the Jailhouse Now—No. 2” in Hollywood, California, in 1930, which follows the misadventures of a man named “Campbell.”
The earliest copyright for the song is a 1915 version by two African-American theater performers named Davis and Stafford. The song has been covered many times, most frequently in Jimmie Rodgers’s version. Artists who have sung it include Tommy Duncan, Webb Pierce, Pink Anderson, Johnny Cash, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions (featuring Jerry Garcia), Merle Haggard, Doc Watson, and Tim Blake Nelson with The Soggy Bottom Boys in the film and soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The song shows up under different titles including “He’s in the Jailhouse Now,” and some versions use the line “She’s in the graveyard now” in the chorus. Prior to 1930, several different versions of it were recorded and copyrighted. The earliest is Davis and Stafford’s 1915 version, which has verses about a man named Campbell cheating at a card game, and a corrupt election. In 1924, Whistler's Jug Band from Louisville, Kentucky, recorded it under the title “Jail House Blues,” which was the same title as a famous blues tune by Bessie Smith but was, in fact, the same song as “In the Jailhouse Now”. In 1927, Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band made another recording of the song. Two African-American bluesmen also recorded the song prior to Rodgers: Blind Blake (in 1927), and Jim Jackson (in January 1928). Jackson also copyrighted the song before Rodgers. Finally, in 1930, the Memphis Sheiks (a pseudonym for The Memphis Jug Band) recorded it in a version that scholars have often claimed – albeit mistakenly -— was a cover of Jimmie Rodgers. The version of the melody and lyrics that they used, is clearly derived from the Louisville Jug Band performances, not Rodgers. On some of the Memphis Sheiks’ records, an African-American vaudeville performer named Bert Murphy is given credit for writing the song.
Shortly after Rodgers recorded the song, three additional versions appeared that were decidedly not covers of Rodgers. Boyd Senter and his Senterpedes did a jazz version in 1929 for the Bluebird label; Gene Kardos and His Orchestra did a jazz version in 1932 for Victor Records; and Billy Mitchell did a stride piano and shouter version of it in 1936 for the Bluebird label. After Rodgers, the best-known version of the song was by Webb Pierce, who had a #1 Country Hit with the song in 1955. When Johnny Cash recorded the song in 1962, he used lyrics that are different than Jimmie Rodgers’ versions and that Cash learned from the African-American jug band musicians in Memphis. In spite of this fact, most writers claim that Cash was covering Jimmie Rodgers’s song, which further obscures the fact that the song originated with African-American performers and was kept alive in a vaudeville and jug band tradition for many decades.
In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, “Delmar” (Tim Blake Nelson) sings a rendition, with “Pete” (John Turturro) yodeling between the verses, prior to The Soggy Bottom Boys' main number, Man of Constant Sorrow. In 1979, the song was done in a blackface performance in the musical One Mo' Time by Vernel Bagneris. The musical was revived on Broadway in 2002. The version of the song used in the show was the same as that recorded by the Louisville Jug Bands in the 1920s.
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