The singer laments his time in prison, and thinks of all that he would do if free. He recalls his crime. He misses his family and his sweetheart. He describes his hopes for freedom in complex metaphors: a ship on the sea, an eagle's wings, etc.
Prisoner's Song (I), The Partial text(s) *** A *** The Prisoner's Song From John Harrington Cox, Folk-Songs Mainly From West Virginia (published as the second part of George Herzog, Herbert Halpert, George Boswell, editors, Traditional Ballads and Folk-Songs Mainly from West Virginia), #27, pp. 193-194. From Jessie McCue, Hookersville, November 10, 1925. Oh, I wish I ha someone to love me, Someone to call me her won; Oh, I wish I had someone to live with, For I'm weary of living alone. Won't you meet me to-night in the moonlight? Won't you meet me to-night all along? For I have a sad story to tell you, 'Tis a story that's never been told. (3 additional stanzas)
Disentangling the sources and versions of this song is almost impossible. Cazden et al believe that it was formed by the collation of two songs, one belonging to the "Botany Bay/Here's Adieu to All Judges and Juries" family and another being a variant of "Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight/I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me." Various floating verses added to the mix, and a portion of "The Red River Valley" supplied the tune. (Others say the tune is "The Ship That Never Returned." Another part of the family, the "Seven Long Years in State Prison/I'm Going to the New Jail Tomorrow" group, uses a slightly regularized form of "My Bonnie.")
Such an elaborate reconstruction can hardly be proved, but there is no doubt that this song has complex roots. The relationships between the texts can hardly be proved; I just hope we locate all of them!
Plus, of course, almost any version collected after 1924 may have been influenced by the Vernon Dalhart recording, which was certainly the first million-selling country side (exact numbers are uncertain, but sheet music sales exceeded one million, and at least two million discs were sold; some estimates put the total at 25 million or more!). The Carter Family also had "Meet Me Tonight in the Moonlight" version, which adds to the complications.
The Dalhart version was copyrighted in 1924 by Dalhart in the name of Guy Massey, a cousin of the singer. At one point, Dalhart claimed Massey wrote the words and he himself the tune. On other occasions, Dalhart claimed the whole song. He also said at one point that it was public domain. Dalhart managed to collect author's royalties, though -- and gave very little to Massey.
The above is mostly from Walter Darrell Haden, in his biography of Dalhart in Malone & McCulloh, _Stars of Country Music_. But he also offers a more complicated tale:
When Dalhart planned to record "The Wreck of Old 97" for Victor (he had already recorded it for Edison, and it was his biggest success to that time), they needed a flip side. To that point, Dalhart had been doing mostly operatic pieces, and didn't have much of a country repertoire. He showed the studio's music director a few lines written out (but not necessarily composed) by Massey. The Victor official, Nathaniel Shilkret, padded out the text and added a tune.
Whatever the details of authorship (and I agree with Haden that this is a slightly-patched-up folksong), it launched Dalhart on a career in which he sold an estimated 50 million discs, cut some 3000 sides totalling about 1000 different songs, and recorded under dozens if not hundreds of names - RBW
Mike Seeger classes "Kilby Jail" as being a variant of this song. The words don't look like it to me, but certainly the gestalt is the same, so I'll go along with him. - PJS