The Struggles and Triumphs of Bessie Jones, Big Mama Thornton, and Ethel Waters

Transcripts - Bessie Jones – Part 1

Transcripts for Clips Embedded at Bessie Jones - Part 1: 1900s to 1930s

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These are the transcripts for the audio clips of Willie Ruff interviewing Bessie Jones. Ruff is represented by R. and Jones is represented by J.

Note: Some of the sentences in the transcripts below are not written as full sentences due to Jones changing her thoughts and words mid-sentence. As a result, dashes are used to indicate changes—like this—to break up a sentence that might otherwise not make sense.

In addition, some parts are marked unintelligible to represent parts that could not be deciphered from the audio files.



Clip 1: Bessie Jones telling the story behind the chain gang song "Sink 'Em Low" to Willie Ruff (1972).

Note: Jones discusses prisoners on chain gang working on constructing roads in Dawson, GA during her childhood.


J.  I told you the song that I learnt on the chain gang out there.


R.  Uh uh.


J.   Well, that’s where I learnt this chain gang song. Right there at home in Dawson, Georgia. They had—They used to make highway roads [unintelligible]. They didn’t put the pavement in like there now, but they were wide roads. Some of ‘em was and [unintelligible]. High hills, you know, and clay. They had clay. They had to dip that clay up with the shovel and throw it high as they could.


And, so Pop and ‘em said that they believe that this song come about because some of the hands was young and they get on the chain gang and they would beat ‘em so bad because they wouldn’t get a shovel full of mud, you know, dirt. They get a little ‘cause it was heavy, you see. And, they made this song and they sang this song to tell ‘em how to do it ‘cause they couldn’t have sat tell ya ‘cause they’d get a beating. And, they made this song up to tell you how to—[burp]—excuse me—how to dip this mud and how to do it to keep from getting—


R.   Getting whooped.


Clip 2:  Bessie Jones discussing seeing prisoners being forced to sing on command and the cruel treatment the men dealt with while working on the chain gang with Willie Ruff (1972).


J.   There was one boss man Mr. Riley, his name was Riley, the head boss of the chain gang out there. He would count, “One! Two! Three!” That’s all they had to do.


R.   Yeah.


J.   And, somebody stuck out on a song. That’s what it meant.


R.   When he count?


J.   When he said that, for ‘em to quit being so still and roll the singing and they would sing. And, so this song was—Pop and ‘em said that they believe that they were singing to the younger prisoners that they would not get beat up ‘cause they had the strap, big ol’ wide, leather strap with tacks in it.


R.   Holes in it, huh. Tacks in it?


J.   Tacks, tacks. Little tacks all the way in ‘em. I’ve seen ‘em. Papa had showed it to us. The tacks— ‘cause sometime they have jobs [unintelligible]. I know Papa showed it to us—tacks in there. Nail some through this way and nail some through that way. Any side he hit, no matter where they hit, they gonna draw the blood. Oh, it was terrible. It was miserable. This was down in Dawson, Georgia. I’ve definitely seen ‘em.


Clip 3: Bessie Jones singing "Sink 'Em Low" to Willie Ruff during their interview (1972)

Note: Jones repeatedly starts and stops singing to explain the meaning behind the lines of the song. This is represented by [Singing:] and [Singing ends].


J.   [Singing:] “Say if you want to please your captain, sink ‘em low, boy. Raise ‘em high” [Singing ends].


That means sink it low in the dirt and get it full and don’t stop until they ready to throw it well ‘cause that’s what they doing, making highway. That’s right.


[Singing:] “Sink ‘em low, boy. Sink 'em low. Sink 'em low, boys. Raise 'em high. Ask the judge what may be my fine, boy. He said if I don't hang you, I'll give ya ninety-nine” [Singing ends].


And, so on and so on. So, that’s where that song went, but it’s a lot of it. When I got sent to ‘Cola, I was [unintelligible]. But, anyhow, it shows you that it goes by—it’s a work song.


[Singing:] “Well I asked my captain, what time of day, boy. He was so hard hearted, he just walked away” [Singing ends]. You think of how nasty that is.


[Singing:] “He walked away, boy. He walked away. He was so hard hearted, he just walked away. When I ask my captain, had said the morning come, boy. He said it makes no difference, I don’t owe you none” [Singing ends].


He didn’t say it that way. We had to say it that way. We had to say, “It make no difference,” but he says, “Matters a damn. I don’t owe you none.” Oh boy, [unintelligible]. This was sung and I heard it. I learned it right on the road.


R.   Right off the road. Right off the chain gang.


J.   Right off the arm.


R.   Almost like you been right on the chain gang yourself.


J.   Like I was on there myself. I was scared and looking at ‘em and seeing how they were doing.