The "Down in the Valley" music, also well-known as "Birmingham Jail", is a conventional American folk music. It has been recorded by numerous artists and is involved in the Songs of Expanding America recordings in Burl Ives' six-album set "Historical America in Song.
The verses mentioning "Birmingham Jail" refer to the Birmingham City Jail which was widely known in the mid-1920s, although the reference was often excluded in later versions. According to one biographer of the folk musician Lead Belly, he presented it for Texas Governor Pat Neff at the Sugarland Penitentiary in 1924.
Guitarist Jimmie Tarlton insisted to have written the lyrics in 1925 while he was jailed in Birmingham for moon-shining. It was first made a record by Tarlton and his partner Tom Darby on November 10, 1927 in Atlanta, Georgia for Columbia Records.
The ballad is engaged in the 3/4 time signature. Lyrics change, as with most folk songs. For instance, from time to time the line "Hang your head over, hear the wind blow" is replaced by "Late in the evening, hear the train blow". In 1927, Darby and Tarlton sang "down in the levee" as an alternative for "down in the valley"; the version sung by Lead Belly in 1934 substitutes "Shreveport jail" for "Birmingham jail".
This music is the fundamental point of the 1945 Kurt Weill and Arnold Sundgaard opera Down in the Valley.
It was performed on The Alvin Show and The Andy Griffith Show in 1962.
It is sung in the movie Stir Crazy by the character Grossberger represented by Erland Van Lidth.
It is also used in the movie Along the Great Divide starring Kirk Douglas, Walter Brennan, Virginia Mayo, and John Agar in spite of the fact that it was written long after the time period set of the movie.