In April 1935 James “Jimmie” Strother, a blind musician, was convicted of second degree murder in Culpeper County in the death of Blanche Green, his wife. Strother received a twenty-year prison sentence. He was received at the Virginia Penitentiary on 21 May 1935 and transferred to the State Farm in Goochland County six days later. He was pardoned by Governor James Price in 1939.
According to a Virginia Department of Historic Resources Historical Highway Marker, famed folklorist John A. Lomax visited the Virginia State Prison Farm and the Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond in 1936. The marker states that “working for the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song, Lomax canvassed southern prisons in search of traditional African American music. On 13 and 14 June 1936, Lomax, assisted by Harold Spivacke, recorded quartets, banjo tunes, work songs, spirituals, and blues at the State Farm. Among the notable performers were inmates Jimmie Strother and Joe Lee. The Library of Congress first released songs from the sessions in the 1940s and they have appeared on many recordings since. These sessions are among the earliest aural records of Virginia’s black folk-song tradition.”
In 2002-2003, the Library of Virginia highlighted these recordings in the Virginia Roots Music exhibition including James Strother’s contribution. When I processed the records of the Virginia Penitentiary, I had hoped to find more information on these recording sessions and on Strother. Unfortunately, no records from that time period are extant. The only items in the collection about Strother were his mug shot and prison register entry. However, James Strother’s pardon file, found in the Executive Papers of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, provide Strother’s version of the events that led to the death of his wife and clues as to what happened to him after he was pardoned. Included are letters written by Strother to Governor Price requesting clemency and describing how a blind man shot and killed a woman. Also included are letters written to Strother by William Taylor, a relative in Baltimore who promised to support Strother if pardoned. I have included the entire pardon file with this post.
Next Week: Sylvia Elwood Huffman
-Roger Christman, Senior State Records Archivist