Tuesday, May 30, 2000

75 years ago: Vernon Dalhart’s “The Prisoner’s Song” hit #1 for first of 12 weeks

The Prisoner’s Song

Vernon Dalhart

Writer(s): Guy Massey (see lyrics here)


Recorded: August 13, 1924


Released: November 1924


First Charted: March 21, 1925


Peak: 112 US, 12 GA (Click for codes to singles charts.)


Sales (in millions): 7.0 US, 1.0 sheet music, 8.0 (includes US + UK)


Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 0.16 video, -- streaming

Awards:

Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

“The Prisoner’s Song” is a sad ballad about a prisoner being transferred between jails and pondering his sweetheart and ‘a pillow of stone.’” RCG It was hugely important to the world of country music. As the genre’s first million-seller CM it opened record companies’ eyes to the possibilities of the genre’s marketability. CL By some estimates, the song went on to sell 7 million copies, making it one of the ten best sellers of the first half of the century, the biggest-selling non-holiday record of the pre-1955 era PM and the biggest hit of 1925. WHC The song originally charted in March 1925 and went to the top for 5 weeks. In December it re-charted and hit the pinnacle for another 7 weeks. PM

As one of the pioneers of early country music, it is fitting that Dalhart (born Marion Try Slaughter) had actually worked as a cowboy, but it is comical that he first studied and recorded as an opera singer. He’d charted half a dozen top ten hits PM before Victor Records tapped him to record a version of “The Wreck of the Old 97.” Dalhart suggested “The Prisoner’s Song” for the B-side. Dalhart would go on to sing the song for at least twenty-eight record labels under seventy different names. TY

There is some debate over the song’s authorship. Dalhart copyrighted the song in Guy Massey’s name, giving Massey 5% of the songwriting royalties and taking the other 95% himself. WK Dalhart heard the song from his cousin Guy Massey, who sang it while staying at Dalhart’s home. However, Guy reportedly heard it from his brother Robert Massey, who may have heard the song while doing time in prison. WK It has even been suggested that Robert F. Taylor carved the lyrics into a county jail cell wall in Blakely, Georgia. WK In any event, the publishers tried to generate interest by saying that the songwriter was a jailbird. RCG

Nat Shilkret fought for authorship as well. He was the A&R man over the country division of Victor Records and claimed he had to rewrite the music because what Dalhart brought in was unusuable. WK


Resources:

  • DMDB encyclopedia entry for Vernon Dalhart
  • CL Ace Collins (1996). The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs. New York, NY; The Berkley Publishing Group. Pages 6-7.
  • CM Country Music Hall of Fame Vernon Dalhart entry
  • RCG RimChiGuy.com The Old Songs (1900-1929)
  • TY Don Tyler. (1985). Hit Parade 1920-1955. New York, NY: Quill. Page 33.
  • PM Joel Whitburn (1986). Pop Memories 1890-1954. Menomonee Falls, WI; Record Research, Inc. Pages 118, 631.
  • WHC Joel Whitburn. (1999). A Century of Pop Music. Menomonee Falls, WI; Record Research, Inc. Page 40.
  • WK Wikipedia


First posted 8/12/2011; last updated 11/1/2021.