“God doesn’t want even convicts to die like rats in a hole!”

November 20, 2009 at 10:07 am (Uncategorized)

“Columbus Prison Fire” was written by Carson Jay Robison, considered by some to be the first country/cowboy/hillbilly (pick your term) singer on record.  Better known as a songwriter, he often worked with popular singer, Vernon Dahlhart, accompanying him on guitar and harmonica.  Sometimes he sang back-up and whistled as well.  He was a particularly accomplished whistler.  In 1924, the duo collaborated on “The Wreck of the Old ’97” b/w “The Prisoner’s Song”  – country music’s first million-selling record.  Four years later, Dahlhart dumped him.

Almost immediately, Robison teamed up with Frank Luther (aka Frank Luther Crowe of the Crowe Brothers), performing and recording, albeit with less success than he had enjoyed with Dahlhart.  Then, in 1930, Robison wrote “Columbus Prison Fire,” just a day or two after the April 21st conflagration at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.  He immediately entered the studio to record this incredible tear-jerker, hoping to be the first to capitalize on the tragedy.  This is where things get kind of confusing.

For one thing, Robison would occasionally record with Bud Billings, the name under which the song was released on the Montgomery Ward label.  However, it was then retitled “The Prison Fire” and released on on Victor and attributed to Bud and Josh Billings (Josh Billings was another one of Robison’s pseudonyms).  “The Prison Fire” also came out on the Harmony label as by Frank Luther and Frank Tuttle.  Apparently, Frank Luther and Bud Billings are one-in-the-same and Frank Tuttle is just another one of Robison’s aliases (along with Charles Robison and Carlos B. McAfee.  Finally, it was called “Ohio Prison Fire” when it came out on the Columbia label, credited to the Carson Robison Trio.

Robison’s song suffers in comparison to Charlotte and Bob Miller’s less restrained “Ohio Prison Fire.”  A review in Time magazine noted, “Carson Robison drones two stories-with-morals [the other was “Why Are the Young Folks so Thoughtless?”] to violin and organ accompaniments.  The first ends, ‘God doesn’t want even convicts to die like rats in a hole.’”  Today, Robsion is probably best remembered (if he is remembered at all) for having written the lyrics to “Barnacle Bill the Sailor.”  His partner, Luther, wrote the music.

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2 Comments

  1. Mike Finn said,

    I have a copy of the original words and music typed by Carson Robison in the Hotel Knickerbocker in New York in 1930. The orginal typed title reads “The Prison Fire or The Fire in the Prison.”

    On the music “The” is crossed out on the first title and replaced with a handwritten “The Ohio,” making the title read The Ohio Prison Fire. I received this copy from the Carson Robison archives at the Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas.

  2. Eileen Blake said,

    Hi Mike. My dad used to recite this as a poem. I would love to get hold of a copy of the lyrics.

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