Leadbelly's "Midnight Special" Prison in Sugar Land Closing (Although It Might Not Be the Prison He "Wrote" It in)

Texas legislators are likely to agree to closing the century-old Central Unit prison in Sugar Land, mostly because it sits on land near the airport that can be developed.

It's one of several Texas Department of Criminal Justice units in the area; a compound of four units is nearby in unincorporated Fort Bend County.

One question to be considered: Is the Central Unit the prison where Leadbelly "wrote" "Midnight Special," his epic ode to being arrested in Houston? Some signs point to yes.

TDCJ spokesperson Michelle Lyons tells Hair Balls there aren't really any unit histories that would list "celebrity" inmates, but various historians say Leadbelly spent time in both the Central and what became one of the Jester units in the county.

Wikipedia says the Central Unit is where he "learned" the song (he didn't write it; it was an old folk standard) and put his Houston lyrics in it:

In 1918 he was incarcerated in Sugar Land west of Houston, Texas, where he probably learned the song "Midnight Special". He served time in the Imperial Farm (now Central Unit) in Sugar Land.

As authority, it cites Robert Perkinson's Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire and Alan Lomax's Folk Song USA.

As it happens, our John Nova Lomax comes from the Lomax family. Alan Lomax, perhaps the most famous of the family, is his grand-uncle. In the video up above (which John describes as "cringe-worthy" for its Boss Hogg aspects) is his great-grandfather John A. Lomax Sr.

And he says, as with many aspects of Leadbelly's pre-fame life, no one can be sure of the details.

He does note that the song's co-writing credits include Lomax, something for which he has gotten shit through the years.

"I always tell people I spend the royalties on booze and gambling, just like Leadbelly would," he says.

One more point: Some people think the Central Unit was the location for some of the scenes in Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express. The arbiter of all such things, imdb.com, says scenes were actually shot at the Jester Unit's pre-release facilities.

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Something tells me that Leadbelly would LOVE to see this prison torn down.

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Scott Henson
Scott Henson

Great tidbit about Leadbelly, and what a cool connection to your staffer!

In the Sugarland Express, the opening scene of the prison they broke out of definitely shows the entrance to Jester. In the story, they lead a low-speed, long-range police chase to Sugarland hoping to kidnap their child from his adopted parents after the state seized the kid while Goldie Hawn's character was incarcerated. Definitely not a Central Unit connection on that one.

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