It can sometimes be confounding when expressions of exquisite artistic expression are produced by those for whom it is quite clear that egregious flaws lie at the heart of their character; written by someone convicted of six charges of rape at the age of just seventeen, 1953 release ‘Just Walking in the Rain’ is a rather extreme case in point.
Written by a man called Johnny Bragg nine years into his sentence at Tennessee State Prison, the song was born out of a comment made to fellow inmate Robert Riley while both men strolled across the prison courtyard: “Here we are just walking in the rain and wondering what the girls are doing”. After Riley’s suggestion that this would form the basis of a good song, Bragg composed some verses but, due to his illiteracy, had to ask Riley to record the lyrics on to paper in return for co-writing credit.
The song was eventually recorded by The Prisonnaires; an all-black quintet that Bragg formed when he joined up with two gospel singing felons (each of whom was serving 99 years for murder) along with two more recent penitentiary arrivals who were incarcerated for their respective crimes of larceny and involuntary manslaughter. The group was discovered by a radio producer who heard them performing while preparing a news broadcast from the prison and they were subsequently brought to the attention of Sun Records magnate Sam Philips.
Philips had the group transported under armed guard to Memphis in June 1953 and ‘Just Walking in the Rain’ was recorded at the nascent rock n roll mecca of Sun Studios. The group attained such success that they were sometimes released on day passes in order to tour throughout the state of Tennessee and were frequent performers at the mansion house of State Governor Frank G Clement.
Featuring solemn but hauntingly beautiful harmonies, it is almost bewildering to contemplate them as the product of troubled men with such dark stories to tell. ‘Just Walking in the Rain’ is a charming musical relic which captures the redemptive power of art while remaining an intriguing testament to man’s dual nature.