|Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm 1947-48
|Volume 1: Murderous Home
|Rounder CD 1714
|Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm 1947-48
|Volume 2. Don'tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling?
|Rounder CD 1715
|Recorded at the Louisiana State Penitentiary by Dr Harry Oster
|Arhoolie CD 448
Breathes there anywhere a soul so vacuous that he or she never had their lives touched by the first of these discs? (sound clip - Murderer's Home) Recorded in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm in 1947, it appeared ten years later as an American Tradition LP called Negro Prison Songs. Shortly afterwards Denis Preston bought the British rights, for his Lansdowne Jazz Series, and sublet them to Nixa, who issued it as Murderers' Home. That disc played no insignificant part in changing the musical map of this country, for it transfixed whole generations. Skifflers, jazz fans, folk revivalists, British blues singers, all found a voice through its grooves. To hear it was to experience a little of the American South, and the iniquities of black oppression. Now, with a slight amendment to the title, presumably for copyright reasons, it is become possibly the most significant single item in the entire Alan Lomax/Rounder Collection.
So, after all these years, what can I find to say that hasn't been said already? I could tell you that production standards are everything we've come to expect from Rounder. The remastering is superb, and the songs are meticulously transcribed. I could tell you that the original sleeve notes are intact. I could tell you about the enthusiastic, if dated, appreciation of Alan Lomax by Robin Roberts, and about the splendid but anonymous introduction. I could mention the charcoal illustrations, as graphic and heartrending as anything words can say. And I could tell you that, after half a lifetime's listening, it still cuts me to ribbons.
It's possible that Volume 1 duplicates the original Tradition release, for one of the tracks of the Lansdowne issue, Katie Left Memphis, has been transferred to Volume 2, while a pair of blues from Bob and Leroy have disappeared altogether. The two blues weren't great, in fact they were easily the weakest items on the LP, but why get rid of them now?
So influential was Murderers' Home that the name Parchman Farm has become synonymous with axe wielding convicts roaring ferocious choruses. However, the institution embraced much more than group worksongs and some of this is reflected in the programming. Axe and hoe songs predominate, but there are one or two solo work songs, several field hollers, including Bama's superb Stackerlee, and a couple of blues. There is also an interview, split over two tracks, during which Bama talks about song leading and about his lot as a three time loser caught in the web of the Mississippi penal system. "In and out, in and out, for the last eighteen years." It fades, heart-rendingly, into a mournful holler by another long time prisoner, Tangle Eye. (sound clip - Tangle Eye Blues)
"In and out" was a common pattern in Southern penal institutions. It developed from a system of race relations and social attitudes moulded in slavery days and dragged into the twentieth century like a feudal relic. The penitentiary was an important element in the suppression of the negro population. Along with lynch law, the Klan and a system of injudiciously administered floggings, the threat of a spell in the pen kept a potentially unruly black populace in a state of servility. The prisons held their share of hard cases, but for most of the inmates, sentences were short, sharp, frequent and brutal, and they were usually meted for trifling misdemeanours.
Impressions of a high turnover of prisoners are supported by these two CDs. Volume 1 is exclusively from Lomax's 1947 recordings and features protagonists with such colourful nicknames as Bama, Tangle Eye, 22, and Hard Hair. Volume 2 is mostly from Lomax's return trip in 1948, by which time additional singers seem to have found their way into the pen. They include Dobie Red, Curry Childress, and 88. The impression is strengthened when one reads John Lomax's reminiscences of collecting songs in Parchman Farm before World War 11. Of the singers he mentions, only Dobie Red and Tangle Eye were in the pen between 1947 and 1948.
'Don'tcha Hear' consists overwhelmingly of material which has never before left the can, and one can only wonder that it was incarcerated for so long. Apart from Katie Left Memphis two items, including the title track (sound clip), were used in the radio documentary, 'Blues in the Mississippi Night'. The sound quality here however, is vastly superior to the CD transfer of that programme. The scope is broader than Murderous' Home and it includes some lying tales and toasts, a convict sermon and a couple of harmonica pieces, including the descriptive Fox Chase. There are also two splendid reiterations of those ballads turned worksongs, John Henry and Stewball. Previous non-release does not in any way imply inferiority. From start to finish these discs are packed with performances raw and vital and unique. In the entire field of recorded American folklore there is nothing else like them.
For those who may not know, the worksong tradition in negro America was a practice carried over from Africa, which manifested first in slave plantations and then in the prison work gang. John Lomax, together with his son Alan, began recording these songs in Southern penitentiaries in 1933. In 1947, and again in 1948, Alan returned to Parchman Farm to gather in the songs we have here. So charged with passion are they that claims of a declining tradition make very odd reading. Yet, when I listen to the Lomaxes earlier collections, I have to agree. Pre-war, the ages of the singers was lower and the melodies were richer and more plentiful. Where the present material wins out is in the march of technology. Pre-war equipment was too limited to record the convicts while they worked. Instead, most of the material was gathered after hours, with the singers worn out from performing the very songs the Lomaxes were trying to capture. By 1947, however, the first modern tape recorder was on the market. With this device it was possible to preserve the sound of negro worksong in full flight.
'Prison Worksongs' is the latest Arhoolie reissue of Harry Oster's Louisiana field recordings. Like the others it appeared first on Oster's Folklyric label, then on Arhoolie vinyl, before being issued in expanded CD format. The original fourteen tracks, all recorded in the State Penitentiary, Angola, are intact. They are augmented by six, previously unissued, which were collected outside the pen.
It was 1959 before Oster got to Angola, by which time worksongs were not so much in decline as redundant. These songs in fact were recorded by Osters' arranging for a few of the older prisoners to be put on special duty. Though I'm saddened to say it, the decline is painfully evident. With one or two notable exceptions there is little of the fire and passion of the Parchman discs. One can almost hear the song leader telling the collector, "This is how we used to do it". If an obsolescent worksong tradition is the price of prison reform, then one can only can say amen.
Yet it is strange. In 1959 Alan Lomax returned to Parchman Farm and recorded what was left of the old-timers. What he gathered then may be judged from the Southern Journey series currently being re-issued by Rounder. For my money, even that late flowering produced singing more vigourous than the Oster disc. But, Parchman or Angola, the songs are magnificent. They are terse and vivid and pithy and seething with the kind of understated lucid imagery which only great oral poetry can produce. Lomax is right to compare them with Homer. They are epic, not in their size or scope, but in the words they use and in the struggle they represent.
These discs suggest remarkably little difference between the Louisiana and Mississippi worksong traditions, at least in terms of melody and singing style. There wasn't too much of a common repertoire, the songs were too ephemeral and improvisatory for that. Stock verses, however, seem to have floated in and out of the various penitentiaries. Perhaps they were carried by itinerant negroes, who themselves floated "in and out". Angola once incarcerated Leadbelly, so it is particularly striking that hardly anything on the disc coincides with his repertoire. Pickin' Cotton all Day Long could have fallen out of the Leadbelly songbag, but it is one of the tracks recorded outside the pen. There are the ubiquitous John Henry and Stewball, but the latter has become a horse of a different colour to the one Leadbelly trotted round the Moe Asch studio in the 1940s. Come to that, Alberta is a much celebrated name in prison song and several ladies of that monicker are sung about by the Angola inmates. None of them matches the woman who gave Huddie such a hard time.
Oster seems surprised at the "confused survival", in John Henry, of a couple of stanzas from the Anglo Scots ballad, Lord Gregory. He shouldn't be, for these verses, admittedly common floaters in American folksong, turn up in other versions, including the one on 'Don'tcha Hear'. In this case they demonstrate a link between American balladry and European forebears. Norman Cohen has shown that the melody of John Henry is from the Earl Brand family and that, besides Lord Gregory, the ballad shows textual influences from the Cherry Tree Carol and Mary Hamilton.
As the name says, the disc is concerned with the worksong tradition, and group worksongs at that. No Angola field hollers are present, the only examples of the genre being a couple of levee camp songs contributed by a non-convict, Emanuel Dunn. However, several Angola songs seem poised between holler and work song. They include a remarkable group cante-fable in which Roosevelt Charles, Arthur Davis and Big Louisiana exchange riposts and verses while hitching up mules ready for the plough. Charles and Louisiana were two of the finest singers in the pen. Through them we hear more than an echo of what the Angola tradition must have been like in full flight. We hear an echo also of the way music in Africa was woven into the weft and warp of everyday life. (sound clip - All Teamed Up in Angola's mule lot)
The range of tasks is wider than on the Parchman discs and maybe this reflects the different economic bases of the two institutions. As well as axe and hoe songs there are songs to accompany cane cutting, ploughing, road scraping and gravel shovelling, and there is a song which synchronises the intricate operation of track lining. At the other end of the spectrum we find Odea Mathews lightening the drudgery of scrubbing clothes with a rendition of the Eddie Boyd hit Five Long years. It begs the question, what is a work song? The stock answer is that work songs lighten the load by co-ordinating group activity, and that songs like Odea's are occupational. That is logical, for worksongs are a pan-global phenomenon; they co-ordinate work for traditional and primitive societies over a very large area of the planet. But do these particular songs exist purely, or even primarily, to co-ordinate work?
The degree of synchronisation would have varied from task to task. A job like tree felling, with four men swinging axes around the trunk, called for enormous precision and you can hear it in songs like Early in the Morning. Other tasks, like gravel shovelling and cane cutting, would have required far less musical organisation. Yet worksongs were endemic until changing attitudes rendered the songs, but not the tasks, obsolete.
Listening to the lyrics and how they were sung, I form the opinion that the songs were far more about making it through the can than they were about synchronising work. In all these verses you will not find the slightest iota of fantasy or escapism. If there were any would-be lottery winners in Parchman Farm or Angola they do not show up here. Instead the songs are vested with stark reality and sweat. They are the channelling of rage and resentment against the iniquity and brutality and rank injustice of a penal system which was nothing more than the legitimised extension of plantation slavery. All folksongs involve catharsis but, inside the pen, song was the only voice which allowed prisoners to kick against the system. Shared songs did more than alleviate the work, they alleviated the misery.
It is a sobering thought, but I know of no other class of song, anywhere on earth, that was recorded at the point of a gun. Society needs to control it's errant members, but does it have to use such barbaric means? How many skifflers happily sang Leadbelly's song about Black Betty without realising that it was a four foot long one inch wide leather strap, used to flog the rebelliousness out of prisoners? Oster notes that between 1929 and 1940, 10,000 floggings were carried out in Angola alone. Those floggings, as John Lomax pointed out, were administered with equal vigour on the backs of prisoners both white and black.
Those facts go a long way to explaining the penal system. In the inherently unstable society that was the Deep South, the threat of the chain gang had to be kept hanging over the heads of every single member. Let any one section step out of line, let any degenerate white element show a bad example to the niggers, and the whole rotten fabric would have collapsed. In Russia they did it with psychiatric hospitals and prison camps. In the cradle of democracy they just dispensed with psychiatry.
If you've never heard prison camp singing you will not find a better place to start than with Murderous' Home. Don'tcha Hear Poor Mother is more than a worthy supplement and, scarcity of material being what it is, the Arhoolie Angola is far too valuable to leave on the record rack. Buy all three of them.
Fred McCormick - 26.9.98
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