Gene Autry's Dallas County Jail Blues.
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature's archives here.
In the early '30s, Orvon Grover Autry gained fame as a singing cowboy, radio host, television and movie star, pilot and, eventually, as the owner of the Los Angeles Angels. Despite his Hollywood appeal, though, the performer better known as Gene Autry grew up in the town of Tioga, Texas — about midway between Dallas and Oklahoma.
Although he's probably best remembered these days for penning the Christmas tune “Here Comes Santa Claus” (as well as popularizing “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”), one of his earliest songs gives us plenty indication that Autry never really forgot about the time he spent in North Texas.
Written in the '30s, his “Dallas County Jail Blues” gives us an early look at the state's inclination towards the death penalty, and the hand that North Texas has had in Texas becoming the capital punishment capitol of the United States.
In the standard blues-style song, Autry sings of a prisoner locked in a Dallas County Jail, wondering what his fate will be.
“I may go to the penitentiary,” sings Autry. “I may get the electric chair.”
This was a question that was much fresher on folks' minds in those days. In the early days of Texas' statehood, each individual county was responsible for carrying out its own executions. In 1923, the State of Texas first authorized use of the electric chair and ordered that all further executions must be carried out by the State at its Huntsville Unit.
Even though it seems an extremely outmoded instrument of death these days, the electric chair is still a viable method of execution in some parts of the country. Since 1976, 157 inmates in the United States have been executed via electrocution, most recently on January 16 of this year, when Robert Gleason of Virginia strangled his cellmate and vowed to continue killing if he wasn't executed asap.
What makes the electric chair seem especially outdated in modern times, though, is the introduction of lethal injection in 1977, which helps explain, at least partially, why there hasn't been an electrocution in Texas since 1964. North Texas actually helped make history in this regard when Charlie Brooks of Tarrant County became the first person in the country executed by lethal injection. He was put to death on December 7 of 1982 for the kidnap and murder of a Fort Worth auto mechanic.
In Autry's days, though, electrocution was a real concern. In the years between 1924 and 1964, when it was the state's primary method of execution, Texas electrocuted 361 inmates, including five on the very first day in which the method became legal.
A quick aside: Other than hanging and the aforementioned methods of electrocution and lethal injection, there was also a brief period when shooting by firing squad was an accepted method of execution in the state of Texas. It was only ever used four times, though, and all of these instances took place during the Civil War.
But, as the character from Autry's song was incarcerated in a Dallas County jail, it's no wonder death was on the forefront of his mind. Between the years of 1972 and 1976, there was a country-wide moratorium on the death penalty following the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Furman v. Georgia. That ban was lifted in 1976, though, and a total of 481 of the 1,321 executions that have taken place in the whole country since have happened in Texas.
According to a 2004 study by Cornell University, Texas only gave two percent of its murderers the death penalty, though. That's less than the national average, it should be noted. On the other hand, however, the state has followed through on 40 percent of those that it has sentenced to death, which is four times higher than the national average.
While Texas has been the national face of capital punishment since the '70s, Dallas, too, has had moments when it has appeared especially cruel. For instance, during the moratorium on executions, the Greater Dallas Crime Commission, who was disappointed there hadn't been any executions since the 1965, circulated a petition to recommission “Old Sparky.” According to a 1971 Times magazine article, the petition received 10,620 signatures. Even in the '70s, the author of that piece referred to the city's gung-ho views towards capital punishment at “draconian.”
Things weren't much better in the '90s, either. In 1995, 17-year-old Dallas resident Toronto Patterson was convicted of capital murder after he committed a triple homicide while stealing three tires from a BMW (he had trouble getting off the fourth and eventually gave up). When he was executed in August of 2002, he became one of the youngest inmates ever executed in the state of Texas. Only two other 24-year-olds had been executed in Texas previously.
Although the nation's death penalty leader has been steadily decreasing its executions since 2002 — the state currently has its lowest number of inmates on death row since 1989 — Dallas hasn't been as quick to drop its quote-unquote draconian views as the rest of the state. For instance: Dallas alone accounted for 20 percent of the state's death penalty sentences in the past five years. And a third of all Texas inmates put to death last year were convicted in Dallas.
Though Autry no doubt understood how harsh Dallas' penal system could be when he was penning his song, we're guessing he wasn't completely aware of the stats associated with this city and its history with the death penalty.
If he was, the song's imprisoned protagonist wouldn't have probably been wondering if he would end up in the electric chair, but when.
It's no wonder, then, that Autry moved to California. They've only executed 13 inmates in the last 36 years out there.