Alabama Prison Swing

Through the 1940s and ’50s, the Draper Prison Band, sometimes known as the Draper Prison Swing Band, played across much of central and south Alabama, making music for a range of civic and social functions. They were scheduled to play a Valentine’s dance at an American Legion hall in Troy in 1953, but there was a last-minute change of plans.

“I regret to inform you that our orchestra will not be able to fill your engagement,” Warden B. R. Reeves wrote to the Legion’s dance chairman. “Several members of the band escaped last Saturday night and have not, as yet, been recaptured.” On the way back to the prison from a PTA-sponsored dance near Birmingham, two of the players — guitarist Clarence Watkins, who was doing six years for burglary, and trumpeter Steve Cooley, serving three for grand larceny — managed to disappear. The Valentine’s show would not go on, Warden Reeves explained. “We can not play without these members.”

Local newspapers found the whole thing amusing. “Those ‘homesick blues’ were just too much for two members of the Draper Prison Swing Band,” the Montgomery Advertiser reported. The Troy Messenger quipped that “When the band played ‘Good Night, Ladies,’ apparently they meant it.” At least a few papers across the country — in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Vermont — picked up the story.

Draper Correctional Facility opened in Elmore, Alabama, in 1939, at the site of the old Speigner Reformatory, and within a few years it had established its popular band, by all accounts a top-notch group of musicians. The band covered a lot of ground. They played VFW halls, American Legion posts, and National Guard armories, and they set the mood at too many small-town high school dances to count. They entertained alumni associations and Jaycees clubs, played for Christmas and New Year’s dances and for at least one Halloween party. They helped raise funds at benefits for the Clay County Red Cross and the Coosa County March of Dimes, played picnics for the Chilton County Masons and a Farmer’s Day celebration in Luverne. They appeared at barbecues for the Wetumpka Rotary Club, the Clay County Farm Bureau, the Pike Road Methodist Church. They swung out patriotic tunes for speech-making, morale-boosting wartime rallies in Elmore County, paraded at the opening of an Alabama Cattlemen’s Association convention in Montgomery, performed at the Grove Hill Fireman’s Ball, provided backdrop to banquets for the Montgomery Boys Club and for graduating high school seniors in Lineville. The prison also boasted formidable baseball and basketball teams, and the band accompanied the athletes as they faced off against area competitors. They played square dances and round dances, entertained dancers and diners at the Greenville Steak House and the Cheaha State Park Hotel. They appeared again and again in the communities of Ashland, Goldwater, Thomasville, Marbury, Weogufka, Pintlala.

At the close of each year’s state legislative session, the Draper band performed for Alabama lawmakers at rowdy celebrations in the Capitol rotunda. One veteran legislator, Democrat Pete Turnham, represented Lee County for forty years, from 1958 to 1998, and as he approached retirement he remembered the old dances as reflections of bygone days. The Draper band “would set up in the rotunda … dressed in their white uniforms,”  he reminisced, and he added: “There used to be a lot of drinking on the final night in the old days. They’d dance a little and party a little.”

This 1953 photo by a Birmingham News photographer — the only photo I’ve seen of the Draper band — presents the musicians on one of those nights. “Prison band whoops it up,” the caption reads, describing the “music-makers … in prison garb, giving out with the merry tunes,” all “part of the fund [fun?] that marks the end of a long legislative grind.”

It’s possible that the previous year’s escapees, Steve Cooley and Clarence Watkins, can be seen in this photo, but I don’t know. A few days after their escape, they were turned in, both of them by their parents.

Soon they were back on the bandstand.

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Postscripts:

If you or your family have memories or photos (or recordings??) of the Draper band, I’d love to hear from you; you can find me at burgin@bhammountainradio.com, or comment in the comments below. I’d especially love to hear from any musicians or their children.

I don’t know when the Draper Prison Band called it quits. Every newspaper reference to the band that I’ve found, except for one, dates to the 1940s and ’50s. In 1981, a band of Draper inmates performed at a farewell party for the retiring prison commissioner; whether the prison hosted a band in all the intervening years — and whether it continued to send such a band out around the state — I don’t know.

The Draper Correctional Facility grew to become Alabama’s oldest active prison, and like other Alabama prisons it came under fire for its inhumane conditions, deemed “deplorable” in an investigation by the Department of Justice. It closed in 2018, and the state Department of Corrections announced plans to repurpose the site as a Life Tech Transition Center, designed to assist parolees in their transition back into mainstream society.

Now Draper is back in the news. To reduce the spread of Covid-19 in Alabama prisons, Draper facilities were reopened as a space to quarantine inmates as they moved into state prisons from county jails. Descriptions of the current facilities are heartbreaking, and the ACLU and other civil rights groups have decried the conditions as unconstitutional, petitioning Alabama Governor Kay Ivey to terminate the facility’s use and provide adequate, humane medical care for the inmates. For more about this, please visit ACLU Alabama’s website.

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P. S. New posts to this site have been scarce in recent months; life, as you know, has been full. To keep up with future posts as they happen, I invite you to follow the blog:

A quick overview, if you’re new here: A lot of what goes on at this site (today’s post, for example) has to do with fairly obscure corners of music history, especially in Alabama, where I live. Many of the posts are the extras, outtakes, bonus tracks, and asides from my music research and writing, and from my radio show, The Lost Child. Other times I write about writing itself and, more generally, about the creative process. Sometimes I write about teaching (I teach high school English, Creative Writing, and Film). Sometimes I draw pictures. If any of that sounds up your alley, I hope you’ll look around and come back often. You can support these endeavors by buying my book, Doc, about the late and great Birmingham jazz artist, Frank “Doc” Adams. (The link is to Amazon, but I encourage you to buy it from someplace local instead. If you don’t have, or can’t get to, a local bookstore, then check out bookshop.org.)

Thanks.

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Sources for the above story include The Dothan Eagle, The Troy Messenger, The Centreville Press, The Prattville Progress, The Ashland Progress, The Alexander City Outlook, The Montgomery Advertiser, The Enterprise-Chronicle, The Wetumpka Herald, The Alabama Journal, The South Alabamian, The Union-Banner, The Cleburne News, The Clarke County Democrat, and other local, contemporary newspapers. I recently found, on eBay, the original Birmingham News press photo of the band and went down this rabbit hole from there.

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