"It's impossible for me to think that you could spend so much time in prison and not interrelate some of these realities into your songs," says MTSU professor John Dougan. "It's what you know."
Dougan, associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University's Recording Industry Management Department and author of The Mistakes of Yesterday, the Hopes of Tomorrow: The Story of The Prisonaires, is on the phone from his Murfreesboro office discussing his new book. An in-depth analysis of the brief career of Sun Records' pre-Elvis one-hit wonders and Tennessee State Penitentiary residents, Mistakes stands at the intersection of musicology and penology, a document of the collision of the music and penal industries in post-war, pre-civil rights-era Music City. It's a story — masterfully researched, richly detailed and lovingly told — hinged on one of the most iconic close-harmony songs in pop history.
"[Prisonaires leader] Johnny Bragg was incarcerated when he was, like, 17 or 18," says Dougan, "and he had been there for over a decade before they released 'Just Walkin' in the Rain.' Prison to him was just as natural as not being in prison, maybe even more natural."
The story of Bragg — convicted on specious charges of multiple rape by a judicial system geared more toward maintaining a strict segrationist sense of law and order than the pursuit of justice — and his fellow convicts in The Prisonaires is unlike any other story in pop music. Rising from a rec-yard gospel quartet in one the state's most brutal jails to the faces of prison reform in '50s Tennessee, The Prisonaires were anachronism — prisoners granted greater freedoms precisely for what Dougan calls their "convictness." While they did achieve some popular success — "Rain" was a regional hit pushed into the national spotlight via a weepy, whitewashed version by Johnny Ray — they were still prisoners, the shiny product at the end of a brutal sociopolitical assembly line. Frequent guests at the governor's mansion, treated as novelty and relegated to the historical-footnote category for most of the past six decades, The Prisonaires — trapped as they were in the gears of the bureaucracy — left a paper trail ripe for the picking by an enterprising music historian.
"I used to spend days at the Tennessee State Library and Archives going through [Gov.] Frank Clement's personal papers," says Dougan. "I would basically read personal letters and all this other stuff — boxes and boxes of material — combing through every letter I could that had anything to do with The Prisonaires or the circumstances at the prison or the personal attacks that [Clement] was absorbing as the governor."
The Mistakes of Yesterday goes beyond the soft strumming and melancholy harmonies of The Prisonaires' signature song, diving headlong into the rich cultural milieu of mid-century Tennessee — the transcontinental reach of WLAC-AM, the pre-Music Row years when major labels weren't the major players in Music City, when rhythm-and-blues and country were about to make a little baby that would conquer the world. And Mistakes never trades narrative for Goldmine-style lists of matrix numbers or other music nerdery. When Dougan tackles "the song," it may run twice as long as any other chapter, but that's because there are a lot of odd characters in this complicated story. The legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry, rogue A&R man Red Wortham and Hank Williams all make appearances. Well, Williams might be a sham — Bragg's knack for self-mythologizing shadows many of the interviews he gave before his death in 2004.
"The easiest thing to do — in so far as understanding the story of Johnny Bragg as told by Johnny Bragg — the easiest thing to do is say he makes stuff up," says Dougan. "Now, factually he can be disproven, but emotionally he feels he's telling a story that's true to him."