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APOLLO 1180; APRIL 1951



More often than not song lyrics are primarily based on one of two things – universal truths or fictitious plots.

The feeling is that if you can’t entertain them with made up characters and conflict in a concise story then you need to connect with listeners by presenting a basic human condition they can relate to.

The genesis of this song however was entirely real, yet despite being something few in their audience had first hand experience with it was written in such a way to make a very specific – and horrific – event translatable to a broader perspective.


Sloping Banks And Ditches
In 1945 Eugene Mumford was a victim of two crimes committed by the morally bankrupt country he called home.

The first offense against humanity occurred when the Military Police, who apparently got bored peeling potatoes or whatever worthless assignments they do while “playing army”, rounded up a bunch of people looking to see if any of them had marijuana.

Not to buy from them unfortunately, nor were they acting on a tip that any of these men were in possession of it and not because the sweet smell of weed was wafting over their camp. Nope, they were just randomly “looking” for a crime… ya know, to keep this country safe.

Mumford was innocent but still turned over to the regular police without any evidence whatsoever. Now you might be saying that this entire ordeal seems very un-American… police blindly searching for unreported crimes, hauling in law abiding citizens and making them prove their innocence before charges are even brought against them, but actually that IS America in a nutshell, especially in the south in 1945 if you were black.

After satisfying his captors that he had none – but before Mumford was able to leave the pigpen he was being held in – a white woman saw him and accused him of housebreaking, assault and attempted rape. Yup, our first sighting of Karen in rock music lore.

She was lying of course but just as predictably Mumford was eventually put on trial and despite a lack of evidence of any kind was sentenced to prison making it the second crime committed against him in all of this. Twenty nine months later, after his father spent that time prodding the state to investigate further, Mumford was released because they discovered he was innocent all along.

Did the state pay him for the time he was imprisoned? Did they arrest the lying bitch and throw her in jail for perjury? Did they fire the police, both military and civilian, for being completely inept at their jobs?

Again, NO, this is America, or haven’t you been paying attention to the way things work around here since 1619?

Somehow Eugene Mumford was either able to suppress his rage or was a docile soul to begin with and wrote When I Leave These Prison Walls while incarcerated in an attempt to put his anguished feelings into a creative outlet.

Upon his release and his joining what eventually became The Larks, the song became their second release as a secular group under that name two years after he was granted his freedom. To think that such legally sanctioned torture of an innocent human being could lead to anything as serenely beautiful as this record is truly hard to fathom.


47th Street Baby Is Really My Block
With its halting piano and warm vocal harmonies slowly leading into the song, almost as if they were tentative about coming in too quickly and being accused of something else, the record has a very curious feel to it that takes you a little while to adjust to if you know the aforementioned backstory.

If not, as few people outside their circle of acquaintances did back then, it still has an unusual sensibility to it as the story unfolds. The concept of a prisoner being so tranquil runs counter to all of the sensationalistic images forced down the public’s throats and so to hear Mumford singing in such a wistful manner about mundane daydreams such as better meals and nights on the town is a certainly unexpected.

It’s also quite lovely, not just thanks to his airy yet soulful tone, the aural equivalent to what a cloud might feel to the touch, but also because he’s investing so much of his imagination in the way he expresses these thoughts.

When he talks about fried chicken and candied yams you can practically taste the spices as you picture him smiling as the scent fills his nostrils in his wistful daydream. His description of catching “the first thing smoking” (a train for you trigger happy simpletons out there, in case you were about to call the cops on him again) to head to another city, almost gets you to think you can hear the clatter of it coming down the tracks.

All of these seemingly random dreams he had behind bars are necessary to survive with your soul intact, as idle fantasy is the only thing that brings any temporary relief to your daily routine. Mumford was on a chain gang, which he sings about here, and though the style of When I Leave These Prison Walls is hardly the kind of sing-along chant those were known for, the thoughts behind it most definitely are.

If it’s possible to sing with a beatific smile on your face that can actually be HEARD in his delivery, Mumford definitely achieves that with this performance.

The other Larks are faint but angelic sounding behind him, offering wordless harmonies that are careful not to intrude, while Allen Bunn’s acoustic guitar lends skeletal support as well. The arrangement may be sparse but the mood it sets is perfect as this is Eugene Mumford’s show all the way and he never falters.

When he lets his voice soar upon thinking of the girl he hopes to meet once he’s out you may finally understand what it is that allows people subjected to the worse humanity has to deal out to continue on in spite of it…

Pure untainted hope for a better tomorrow.


I’m Gonna Ball
Theoretically of course it’s possible to substitute lots of far less dire conditions for the one Mumford sings about here. Kids have referred to schools as prisons for years… people in fractured relationships say the same thing… most everybody in the world today after living through two full years of a pandemic surely have had similar thoughts… so this was something that was relatable even if you never saw the inside of a cell.

That’s to Mumford’s enduring credit as a songwriter, even though truthfully you’d like to hear his real thoughts on the matter when the guards – or record companies – weren’t eavesdropping.

Usually songs are a little better for knowing the stories behind them, if only because you get a better sense of the mindset that led to what’s being expressed, but in a weird way that might not be the case for When I Leave These Prison Walls.

Knowing what Mumford went through definitely adds to the song’s emotional impact, but if you have any sense of moral outrage at the justice denied him it can be a tougher listen at times if you let yourself dwell on those circumstances than it would if you thought he was just pulling a story out of thin air.

In the end though we can’t dock him any more for that reality creeping into our appreciation for what he was able to come out of there with. He wound up with a thriving career, some hit records along the way and even now, close to eight decades after he was hauled in under a thoroughly corrupt system, he remains one of the more revered vocalists of his era. That’s a fairly happy ending.

Of course it’d be nice to report that the accuser, the cops, the prosecutor, the judge and the entire jury all died of the most gruesome illnesses and injuries imaginable in the months and years to come, suffering to their final gasping breath, but I suppose that’s the kind of happy ending that’s too much for anyone to hope for.


(Visit the Artist page of The Larks for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)