ARTISTSONGALBUM
Interview Pt. 1Jeff Place
Leadbelly Black GirlThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly Been So Long (Bellevue Hospital Blues) The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 2Jeff Place
Leadbelly Irene (Goodnight Irene)The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly CottonfieldsThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 3Jeff Place
Leadbelly Fannin StreetThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 4Jeff Pace
Leadbelly Noted RiderThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 5Jeff Place
Leadbelly Silver City BoundThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly One Dime BluesThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly & The Golden Gate Quartet Alabama BoundAlabama Bound
Interview Pt. 6Jeff Place
LeadbellyWNYC- Folk Songs of America ProgramThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 7Jeff Pace
LeadbellyRock Island LineThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
LeadbellyShorty GeorgeLeadbelly: The Remaining LOCR Vol. 3 1935
Interview Pt. 8Jeff Place
Leadbelly The TitanicThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly Jim Crow BluesThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Leadbelly The Bourgeois BluesThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 9Jeff Place
Leadbelly & Josh WhiteMother's Blues (Little Children Blues)Leadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-49
LeadbellyDiggin' My PotatoesThe Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Interview Pt. 10Jeff Place
Leadbelly I'm On My Last Go-RoundLeadbelly: Important Recordings 1934-49)
Leadbelly Don't You Love Your Daddy No More Leadbelly & Josh White (Reamaining Titles) 1937-1946
Leadbelly When a Man's a Long Way from HomeLeadbelly Vol. 5 1944-1946

Show Notes:

Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways CollectionToday's program is our first show devoted to Lead Belly who I haven't played all that much on the show over the years. I remember picking up my first Leadbelly album back in High School. It was a self-titled album on Columbia collecting some of his 1930's blues sides. For whatever reason the album didn't make much of an impression on me. It was only years later, after picking some of the collections on Document that I got a better appreciation of the sheer breadth of his repertoire and talent. Today's show is inspired by a recent 5-CD box set on the Smithsonian Folkways label, The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, that serves as an excellent career retrospective and has an informative booklet with essays by Robert Santelli and Jeff Place. We play a number of tracks from the box set plus chat with producer Jeff Place, who I spoke with a couple of weeks back.

Lead Belly's recording career began with recordings made in 1933 by John and Alan Lomax at Angola prison and after his release from prison he recorded prolifically right up until his death in 1949. Lead Belly never had much success among black audiences, his commercial blues recordings did not sell, but he found success among the folk music audience. He became a fixture in New York City's folk music scene befriending and performing with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, and a young Pete Seeger. Lead Belly was also the first blues musician to see success in Europe when he traveled there in 1949. He died later that year in New York City.

As Robert Santelli writes in the notes: "Lead Belly was a man of contradiction and complexity. It was hard to truly know him, said the people who tried, and it was next to impossible to place him in a particular music style or form and have him remain there for long. He was a folk musician who also played the blues. He knew his share of work songs and field hollers, having sung them while picking cotton and doing farm chores. He learned prison songs while incarcerated, and he sang them like a man who had seen life’s underbelly. Spirituals and gospel tunes came naturally to him. He gave new life to old ballads whose origins were buried in the past. He could sing children’s songs when kids were present. And at house parties and local fish fries, if someone wanted to hear a few standards or a pop hit of the day, he could sing and play them too. Lead Belly moved through American music genres and song circles naturally and effortlessly, never seeing the boundaries and categories that were created for commodity’s sake by men with bow ties and clean suits. He was the very definition of a 'songster,' an old-time, old-school human jukebox of a performer and recording artist who never quite realized just what an American music treasure he had become in his life."
LeadBelly
Huddie Ledbetter was born January 15, 1888, in the Caddo Lake District near Mooringsport in the northwest corner of Louisiana, near the Texas and Arkansas lines. Two of Huddie’s uncles, Bob and Terrell, were musicians and introduced him to new songs. His uncle Terrell gifted him a small accordion when was seven years old. He would acquire a guitar around 1903. Huddie had become adept at all sorts of musical styles, and found that he could pick up a few extra cents playing at local country dances, or “sukey jumps." By the time Huddie left Mooringsport in 1906, he had fathered two children out of wedlock and had a bad reputation locally. After some rambling to New Orleans and other places, he landed in Shreveport. Along the way he had learned all types of songs, including popular songs of the early 1900s. Around 1910, a now-married Huddie moved to Dallas, Texas. According to Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell in The Life And Legend Of Leadbelly: "Sometime during his wanderings – probably late in 1910, when he was living near Dallas – Huddie acquired his first twelve-string guitar." Leadbelly told may tales of how he picked up the instrument. One of the less fanciful stories is recounted in the book: 'I saw one of those old 12-string Stellas sitting in the window of a Dallas store. The year before I heard a man play it in one of those traveling medicine shows where they sold a cure-all for fifty cent a a bottle.' Captivated by the loud, ringing sound of the instrument, Leadbelly  had spent the rest of the night hanging around the medicine show tent listening to the man play. Shortly, thereafter, when he finally saw one of the twelve-strings for sale; 'the price of the guitar was $12', he recalled, 'I had to have it.'" In 1912, he met and started playing as a duo with Blind Lemon Jefferson who in the 1920's would become one of the best-selling blues artists in the country.

In June 1915, Huddie was involved in an altercation and was sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang. Huddie escaped and fled to New Orleans, and then back to Mooringsport. He could not stay there, and so, traveling with his wife, he began going by the name Walter Boyd and went to live with relatives in DeKalb, Texas. In December 1917, Lead Belly found himself in a confrontation, a gun was fired, and Will Stafford lay dead. 78-rpm-rare-blues-leadbelly-record-alabama-bound-on-hmv-mh-160-must-see-ee_5789957Huddie claimed it was self-defense but was sentenced to between 7 and 30 years in a Texas prison. He began at the Shaw State Prison and later was transferred to the notorious Sugarland Prison. He was released in 1925.

He would be free for just five years; in 1930 another fight landed him in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison for six to ten. Lead Belly became known around the prison for his singing and guitar playing. John and Alan Lomax arrived at Angola on July 16. Lead Belly was suggested to them as a good singer to record, and they realized they had really made a “find.” The Lomaxes made 12 recordings and returned the following July to record 15 more songs. He had a special one prepared, “Governor O.K. Allen.” He asked if John Lomax would deliver a recording of the song to Allen’s office. Lead Belly had previously written asking for a pardon as well. It is not known whether Allen listened to the song, but Lead Belly was officially granted a pardon on July 25, 1934.

He returned to Shreveport and began to lobby John Lomax for a job. Alan was suffering from an illness, and John needed a driver. In the fall, performing this role, Lead Belly took off with them on a recording trip. He would sometimes warm up the prisoners by singing his songs and showing them the kinds of things Lomax wanted. Lomax was anxious to present his new discovery to a meeting of the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia, which launched the flurry of sensationalism that accompanied Lead Belly’s arrival on the scene. Finally it was the big move to New York. In 1935, the Lomaxes had lobbied for Lead Belly to sign a recording contract with the American Recording Corporation (ARC). Of the 43 songs Lead Belly recorded for ARC, only six saw the light of day.

In breadth and number, the greatest collection of songs Lead Belly ever recorded were the hundreds he did for the Library of Congress. The two Lomaxes were acting as his managers and took two thirds of the cut. Eventually there was a falling out and Leadbelly moved to Shreveport then Dallas. He eventually decided to give New York City another try. During the same time period, Lead Belly was being introduced to singers in New York who came from a strong protest song background. In April 1939, Lead Belly recorded a session for the small Musicraft Records and the following year for the Library of Congress. Throughout 1941 and early 1942, Lead Belly had a weekly show on WNYC’s The American School of the Air called Folk Songs of America. He also made recordings for RCA in 1940, some backed by the Golden Gate Quartet.

The commercial labels that recorded Lead Belly didn’t know how to market his music. For better or worse, Lead Belly’s strongest audience turned out to be the music fans involved in the folk revival, mainly in New York. City. Around this time Leadbelly Leadbelly Columbia Albumbegan recording for Moe Asch and his Asch label. Lead Belly recorded mainly for Asch for the rest of his life. In 1945, Asch Records went out of business and was followed by Asch’s second label, Disc Recordings of America. Lead Belly continued to record for Disc. During that time and for years to come Lead Belly’s apartment at 414 East 10th Street was a hub of musical activity. His niece Tiny Robinson remembers “it being like a friendly hotel that would receive musical guests like Sonny and Brownie, Bill Broonzy, Burl Ives, Eartha Kitt, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Harry Belafonte."

In 1948 Lead Belly was recorded extensively  by Fredric Ramsey. These sides were eventually released by Smithsonian Folkways as a 4-CD set titled Lead Belly's Last Sessions. In the late 1940's, Lead Belly began to feel something was physically wrong. In 1948, at a show in Paris during his trip to Europe, he found he could not continue playing his guitar. He was taken to a Parisian doctor who diagnosed Leadbelly with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He died in New York at Bellevue Hospital a little over a year later on December 5, 1949.

Over the next few years, a series of memorial LP's honoring Lead Belly were released by both the new Folkways label and Stinson Records, and many of Lead Belly’s numerous friends took part in memorial concerts. The band the Weavers, featuring Pete Seeger, celebrated Lead Belly’s music on stage, recording “Rock Island Line,” “Silvy,” and “Goodnight Irene” (among others). "Goodnight Irene” became a huge hit in 1950.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Little Brother Montgomery Louisiana Blues Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery Out West Blues Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery Walking Basses/Dud Low Joe/FirstVicksburg Blues Conversation With The Blues
Little Brother Montgomery The 44 (Vicksburg) Blues Deep South Piano (Storyville)
Little Brother Montgomery Hesitatin' Blues Deep South Piano (Storyville)
Little Brother Montgomery Bob Martin Blues Deep South Piano (Storyville)
Little Brother Montgomery I Keep DrinkingAmerican Folk Blues Festival '66
Little Brother Montgomery Something Keeps Worrying Me Tasty Blues
Little Brother Montgomery Michigan Water Blues Chicago: The Living Legends
Adam CatoOld Barrelhouse BluesDeep South Piano (Agram)
Little Brother Montgomery Dudlow Joe Deep South Piano (Agram)
Little Brother Montgomery West Texas Blues Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery Crescent City Blues Little Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery I Don't Feel Welcome Here (Stingaree Blues)Farro Street Jive
Little Brother Montgomery L&N Boogie Blues
Little Brother Montgomery Mama, You Don't Mean No Good I Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Little Brother Montgomery InterviewI Blueskvarter Vol. 2
Little Brother Montgomery Pleadin' Blues Rare Blues
Little Brother Montgomery Talkin' BoogieAtlantic Blues: Piano
Little Brother Montgomery Cow Cow Blues Little Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Irene Scruggs Must Get Mine in Front Little Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Annie TurnerWorkkhouse BluesLittle Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Little Brother Montgomery Farish Street JiveLittle Brother Montgomery 1930-1936
Little Brother Montgomery Loomis Gibson Blues Deep South Piano (Agram)
Roosevelt SykesThe Way I Feel BuesDeep South Piano (Agram)
Little Brother Montgomery Woman That I LoveLittle Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Little Brother Montgomery A&B Blues Little Brother Montgomery: Vocal Accompaniments & Early Post-War Recordings 1930-1954
Little Brother Montgomery No Special Rider Blues Blues Piano Orgy
Little Brother Montgomery Cooney Vaughn's Tremblin' BluesDeep South Piano (Storyville)
Little Brother Montgomery Up The Country BluesBajez Copper Station

Show Notes:

Deep South PianoLittle Brother Montgomery ranks among the greatest blues pianists of the 20th century who had unusually long and prolific career. Montgomery's biographer, Karl Gert zur Heide, called Montgomery "probably the greatest all-round piano player of his time in the Deep South." He was born in 1906, passed away in the early 1980's and began his recording career in 1930. Like his contemporary, Roosevelt Sykes, both men chose to record their versions of “44 blues” at their debut sessions; Sykes cutting it first in 1929 as "Forty- Four Blues" and following year by Montgomery as “Vicksburg Blues.” Montgomery recorded steadily through the decades although never became a star like his contemporary, Sykes who cut hundreds of commercial sides for the black record buying public. Montgomery was recorded much more sparingly, cutting some two-dozen sides in the 30's, without a doubt his greatest recordings, barely recorded in the 40's and 50's but saw ample recording opportunities starting with the blues revival of the 1960's and continuing through the 1970's.

This is our second show devoted to Montgomery, with the first also spotlighting Roosevelt Sykes. Today's show was inspired by the recent 3-CD set on the Agram label, Deep South Piano: The Music of Little Brother Montgomery, his Family, Friends and Peers.  These recordings stem from a trip to  the United States by Karl Gert zur Heide in 1968 and 1972 to seek out piano blues players. During that trip he recorded Sunnyland Slim, Little Brother Montgomery, Sweet Williams, Lafayette Leake, Roosevelt Sykes and others. This collection serves as a belated companion to Heide's long-out-of-print book, Deep South Piano: The Story of Little Brother Montgomery which came out in 1970 (I recently tracked down a copy of this fascinating book). Today's show is inspired by another album I've been listening to quite a bit lately, also titled Deep South Piano and cut for the Storyville label in 1972. The more I listen to this record the more I feel this is one of his finest; perfectly recorded, the album finds Montgomery at his peak and in a nostalgic mood as he remembers those piano men who influenced him but never record on such songs as "Willie Anderson's Blues", "Vanado Anderson Blues", "Bob Martin Blues", "Cooney Vaughn's Tremblin' Blues", "Miles Davis Blues" and an extended reworking of his classic, "The 44 (Vicksburg) Blues." Montgomery knew a staggering number of piano players and absorbed a vast musical knowledge from them. Indeed, Montgomery knew a huge number of songs although he had a smaller number of favorites he recorded often throughout the years.

Crescent City Blues
Farrish Street Jive

Eurreal Montgomery was the fifth of ten children, born to Harper and Dicy Montgomery. The family home was in Kentwood, Louisiana where Harper ran a honky-tonk where logging workers gathered on weekends to drink, dance, gamble and listen to music. Most all of the Montgomerys were musical. Harper played clarinet, and Dicy played accordion and organ. Eurreal’s brothers and sisters all learned to play piano to one degree or another. Little Brother taught himself to play simple "three finger blues", as he called them, on a piano his father bought the family. From then on," he told his biographer Karl Gert zur Heide, "I just created simple things on my own until later I got large enough and went to hear older people play.… like Rip Top, Loomis Gibson, Papa Lord God." Montgomery had plenty of opportunity to hear older musicians. Most of them passed regularly through Kentwood and played at his father’s honky-tonk. Eventually, he told Heide,  "…I ran away from home at about the age of eleven and played piano for a living."

Little Brother, along with a group of other players, developed a piano piece that was unlike any other, and they revelled not only in its originality, but also in its sheer difficulty. He described it as “the hardest barrelhouse of any blues in history to play because you have to keep two different times going in each hand”. This remarkable composition developed over a period of years and was inevitably picked up by other players. One of these (“a feller… (who) always used to be hangin’ around us tryin’ to get in on it”) was Lee Green. Later, in St.Louis, Green would teach it to Roosevelt Sykes, who in turn, was the first to put it on a record, for Okeh in New York in 1929, under the title "44 Blues."

Montgomery played his way through Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. He eventually moved to New Orleans. In the mid-1920's, Montgomery toured Louisiana with a variety of bands, his own and others. In 1928, Montgomery was hired by Clarence Desdune’s Dixieland Revelers, a dance band. At the end of 1928, Montgomery quit the Revelers and moved up to Chicago. He made a name for himself playing rent parties—house parties put on in black neighborhoods to raise money to pay the rent. As Heide writes: "It seems impossible to lay down a reliable chronology of Brother's movements in he mid-1920s. He traveled extensively in the areas round Louisiana and Mississippi… He probably bought his first car when he was eighteen years old. Thus he could traverse the country playing 'one-nighters.'"

In late 1930, Montgomery accompanied Minnie Hicks and on two songs, Irene Scruggs on four and recorded “No Special Rider blues” and "Vicksburg Blues" for Paramount. The latter song was one of the most popular blues of its day, widely imitated by bluesmen. In 1931 he cut one 78 for Melotone, "Louisiana Blues b/w Frisco Hi-Ball"and cut two 78's for Bluebird in 1935. His next recording opportunity was in October 1936 in New Orleans where he waxed a remarkable 18 song session. He also backed fifteen year old singer Annie Turner on four numbers. The recordings Montgomery laid down were undoubtedly the pinnacle of Deep South Piano Bookhis career, an astonishing profusion of piano technique, originality and depth of feeling that mark these as one of the finest bodies of piano blues recorded in the era. As Chris Smith writes he was "adept at blues, jazz, stride, boogie and pop which he synthesized into a personal style that ranged easily from the bopping earthiness of "Frisco Hi-Ball" to the pearl-stringing elegance of "Shreveport Farewell." His high voice and bleating vibrato are unmistakable, especially on his signature piece, "Vicksburg Blues", a polyrhythmic  showcase for his acute but never pedantic timing. it's also an example of Brother's poetry of geography; many of his songs, and even the titles of his instrumentals, are rich evocations of places he knew and the railroads that carried him between them."

Around the time World War II started Montgomery moved north to Chicago where he remained for the rest of his career. After the war, he began playing "old-time jazz" with musicians such as Baby Dodds and Lonnie Johnson. In 1948, he took part in a Carnegie Hall reunion concert by the Kid Ory Band and He played the Chicago club circuit regularly. Montgomery, like many others, saw himself as more than just a bluesman. From quite early on, too, Montgomery had played in jazz bands, and based in New Orleans in the 1920's, he worked with many of the great musicians in that city. It was in a jazz band that he would appear on his first issued recordings of the post-war era, together with New Orleans musicians Lee Collins (trumpet) and Oliver Alcorn (sax) and a Chicago rhythm section, in 1947 for Century. Also from the 1940's were unissued sides for Savoy in 1949.

In the 1950's there was sporadic recording activity, even if there were few issued records to show for it at the time: a 1951 session for Atlantic with drummer Frank ‘Sweet’ Williams, two 1953 sides for JOB and two sessions in 1954 and 1956 only four tracks were issued, on a ten-inch LP on the Winding Ball label and five rare sides cut for the Chicago label, Ebony, in 1956.

As electric post-war blues took hold in Chicago, Montgomery was an active session musician. He toured briefly with Otis Rush in 1956. His fame grew in the 1960's, and he continued to make many recordings. He appeared on some of the influential mid-fifties record made by Otis Rush, and played piano on one of Buddy Guy’s first big hits, his 1960 remake of Montgomery’s "First Time I Met The Blues."

Deep South Piano
Read Liner Notes

As momentum to Montgomery’s career picked up in the 60's and he became a world traveler, visiting the UK and Europe on several occasions during the 1960's, cutting several albums there, while remaining based in Chicago. He cut some excellent albums during this period including Tasty Blues for Bluesville featuring sympathetic support from guitarist Lafayette Thomas, two exceptional records for Folkways (Blues and Farro Street Jive), the aforementioned Storyville album, a fine live recording in Amsterdam (Bajez Copper Station) plus band recordings with Edith Wilson and the State Street Ramblers (He May Be Your Man… But He Comes To See Me Sometime!), an album with the State Street Swingers (Goodbye Mr. Blues), recordings made for his own FM label among several others. Other notable recordings were made in 1964 for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation (I Blueskvarter Vol. 2) and in 1960 when Montgomery visited England where he was recorded extensively by piano expert Francis Wilford Smith (issued on Magpie as These Are What I Like: Unissued Recordings Vol. 1 and Those I Liked I Learned: Unissued Recordings Vol. 2.). He continued performing and recording practically right up to his death on September 6, 1985 of congestive heart failure.

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Just a quick note that on our 3/15 show I will have my friend and bluesman Steve Grills down in the studio to help out on the pledge drive. Steve will be bring down some records to spin and I'll bring down some  as well. There will be no show notes for this show.

The Jazz90.1 spring membership campaign is underway with a goal of $50,000 to keep the great jazz, blues and specialty programs on the air. If you're a listener of the show please help support us if you can. You can call at 966-JAZZ, 966-5299 or toll-free 1-800 -790-0415. You can also pledge online by clicking here.

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ARTISTSONGALBUM
Jimpson and Group Murderer’s Home Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
22 and Group It Makes A Long Time Man Feel Bad Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
FootsHollers Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Josephine Parker I Got A Man In New Orleans Jailhouse Blues
Lucille Walker Shake 'em on Down Jailhouse Blues
Beatrice TisdallWorkhouse Blues Jailhouse Blues
Wade WaltonParchman Farm Shake 'Em On Down
Joe SavageJoe’s Prison Camp Holler Living Country Blues USA Vol. 9
The ConfinersHarmonica Boogie The Devil's Music
BamaStackalee Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Tangle Eye Tangle Eye’s Blue Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Floyd BattsLucky Song Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Big Charlie Butler It's Better To Born LuckyMississippi: Saints & Sinners
Dobie Red & GroupRosie Mississippi: Saints & Sinners
Bukka White Parchman Farm Blues The Complete Bukka White
Bukka White When Can I Change My ClothesThe Complete Bukka White
BamaI’m Going Home Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Clarence AlexanderDisability Boogie Woogie Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
John DudleyCool Drink of Water Blues Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Eva WhiteNo Mo' Freedom Jailhouse Blues
Mattie May Thomas No Mo' Freedom American Primitive Vol. II
Mattie May Thomas Dangerous BluesAmerican Primitive Vol. II
Charlie PattonSpoonful The Best of Charlie Patton
Ed LewisLevee Camp Holler / Interview Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
BamaLevee Camp Hollers Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Clarence AlexanderPrison Blues Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Beatrice Perry I Got a Man on the Wheeler (Levee Camp Blues) Jailhouse Blues
Hattie GoffOh Mr. Dooley, Don't 'Rest Me Jailhouse Blues
Group Of Women Prisoners If There's Anybody Here Wants to Buy Some Cabbage Jailhouse Blues
Bridges Lee Cole HollersParchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
BamaI Don't Want You BabyParchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Grover Wells and Group RosieParchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Son HouseCounty Farm BluesThe Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Franks EvansRed River BluesMississippi: The Blues Lineage
Bukka WhiteSic 'Em Dogs On Mississippi Blues and Gospel: Field Recordings 1934-1942
John Dudley Clarksdale Mill Blues Southern Journey, Volume 3: 61 Highway Mississippi
Henry Ratcliff Look for Me In LouisianaParchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959
Ed Lewis & Prisoners I'll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down I'll Be So Glad When the Sun Goes Down
Mary JamesGo 'Way Devil Leave Me AloneJailhouse Blues
Five Woman Penitentiary Blues (Rickentiest Superintendent) Jailhouse Blues
Leroy MillerBerta, Berta Southern Journey, Volume 3: 61 Highway Mississippi
Floyd MillerDangerous BluesI'll Meet You On That Other Shore

Show Notes: 

Parchman

Today's show is inspired by by the recent release on Dust-To-Digital, Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959. The set collects sides recorded by Alan Lomax in the 40's and 50's at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Much recording was done at Parchman beginning in the 1930's and the prison has inspired many songs. Today we feature some of those songs and recordings spanning 1930 through 1962.

For decades the prison operated essentially as a for-profit cotton plantation and harsh working and living conditions made Parchman Farm notorious. Folklorists Alan Lomax, his father John A. Lomax, Herbert Halpert, and William Ferris all made recordings at Parchman. The Lomax's first visited Parchman in 1933 and returned numerous times to record blues, work songs, spirituals, and personal interviews with inmates. Herbert Halpert made some remarkable recordings by female inmates recorded in the prison’s sewing room in 1939. Other notable recordings include a 1939 session with bluesman Bukka White while he was serving time. Alan Lomax went back to Parchman to record in 1947, 1948 and 1959. In the late 60's William Ferris made recordings at Parchman.

In 1958 Alan Lomax wrote: “A few strands of wire were all that separated the prison from adjoining plantations. Only the sight of an occasional armed guard or a barred window in one of the frame dormitories made one realize that this was a prison. The land produced the same crop; there was the same work for blacks to do on both sides of the fence. And there was no Delta black who was not aware of how easy it was for him to find himself on the wrong side of those few strands of barbed wire. … These songs are a vivid reminder of a system of social control and forced labor that has endured in the South for centuries, and I do not believe that the pattern of Southern life can be fundamentally reshaped until what lies behind these roaring, ironic choruses is understood.” A report in the New York Post in 1957 confirms Lomax's impression: "The state penitentiary system at Parchman is simply a cotton plantation using convicts as labor. The warden is not a penologist, but an experienced plantation manager. His annual report to the legislature is not of salvaged lives; it is a profit and loss statement, with the accent  on profit." Reform finally came in 1972 when federal judge William C. Keady found that Parchman Farm violated the Constitution and was an affront to "modern standards of decency."

Jailhouse Blues
Read Liner Notes

Regarding the recordings that make up the bulk of today's show, Bruce Jackson writes: "Black prisoners in all the Southern agricultural prisons in the years of these recordings participated in two distinct musical traditions: free world (the blues, hollers, spirituals and other songs they sang outside and, when the situation permitted, sang inside as well) and the work-songs, which were specific to the prison situation, and the recordings in this album represent that complete range of material, which is one of the reasons this set is so important: it doesn’t just show this or that tradition within Parchman, but the range of musical traditions performed by black prisoners. I know of no other album that does that."

In 1947-48 Alan Lomax made these remarkable recordings at Parchman Farm, armed with state-of-the-art technology, a cassette machine. These sides were originally issued as the LP Negro Prison Songs and reissued on CD as Prison Songs Vol. 1: Murderous Home by Rounder with a companion volume following later. The bulk of this material appears on the Dust-To-Digital collection and there are also some unreleased recordings. Lomax gathered the prisons best lead signers for these recordings, all simply known by their nicknames: men like Bama, 22, Alex, Bull, Dobie Red, and Tangle Eye. Returning to the United States in 1958 (after 10 years abroad), Lomax set out on two more long field trips through the American South which resulted in nineteen albums issued on the Atlantic and Prestige International labels in the early 1960's. He traveled from the Appalachians to the Georgia Sea Islands, from the Ozarks to the Mississippi Delta, recording blues, ballads, breakdowns, hymns, shouts, chanteys, and work songs. Among those recordings were more material recorded at Parchman Farm.

Both Alan and his father began recording in prisons as early as 1933. Through a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, John Lomax was able to set out in June 1933 on the first recording expedition under the Library of Congress' auspices, with Alan Lomax (then eighteen years old) in tow. In July 1933 they acquired a state-of-the-art, 315-pound acetate phonograph disk recorder and proceeded to tour Texas prison farms recording work songs, reels, ballads, and blues from prisoners. During the next year and a half, father and son continued to make disc recordings of musicians throughout the South, touring Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola where they found Leadbelly and made recordings at Parchman. The Lomax's recorded at Parchman throughout the 30's. One of the most famous bluesman they recorded was Bukka White. In 1937 White recorded a minor hit, “Shake ‘Em On Down,” in Chicago, but that year he was also sentenced for a shooting incident to Parchman, where John Lomax recorded him performing two numbers in 1939. After his release White recorded twelve songs at a Chicago session in 1940. Among the songs he recorded were two songs about his time in prison: "Parchman Farm Blues" and "When Can I Change My Clothes?."

Parchman farm

I've always been fascinated by the females who recorded at Parchman and whom I first heard on the album Jailhouse Blues on the Rosetta label. These recordings were made in May and June 1939 by Herbert Halpert in the sewing of the Woman's Camp in Parchman. Camp 13 was the woman's camp where white and black women occupied separate wards. The women's primary work was making clothes for the prisoners, mattresses and bedding. The woman also did canning and helped out in the fields. The Parchamn women were asked to sing a song, any song they chose. There were no restrictions about length or subject, but most of the songs were short and some merely fragments. The best of those singers is the remarkable Mattie May Thomas. Thomas was a senior member at Parchman for she had served twice before. She recorded four sides. One of the songs she sings, "Dangerous Blues", was also recorded by Parchman prisoner Floyd Batts and Joe Savage. John Lomax recorded some woman at Parchman in 1936.

There were a number of blues singers like Bukka White who did time at Parchman including Son House and Joe Savage, both featured today. After allegedly killing a man in self-defense, House spent time in prison in 1928 and 1929. According to Dan Beaumont in Preaching The Blues at "some point in possibly in 1927, but more likely in 1928 …at a boisterous 'frolic,' House shot and killed a man. …At the trial House claimed self-defense, but that defense failed and he was convicted and sentenced to time at the state prison, Parchman Farm." In 1930 House recorded "County Farm Blues" and recorded it again for Alan Lomax in 1942 for the Library of Congress.

Parchman 1959
Parchman Farm, September 1959

Joe Savage appears in the 1978 Alan Lomax documentary The Land Where the Blues Began. Savage spent several years in the Parchman State Penitentiary, and speaks on film about the brutality he faced while serving time. He was recorded in 1980 by Axel Küstner and Siegfried Christmann and issued as part of the Living Country Blues USA series of albums. From those recordings we play the powerful "Joe’s Prison Camp Holler."

Other Parchman related songs featured today included sides by Wade Walton and the Confiners. Clarksdale barber/musician Walton recorded the talking blues "Parchman Farm" on his long-out-of-print album, Shake 'Em on Down. On it he talks about bringing two white folk-song collectors (Dave Mangurian and Donald Hill) from California to the prison in 1958. In 1961, the Electro Record Company of Hattiesburg, MS released a single, the instrumental "Harmonica Boogie b/w Toss Bounce" by the Confiners a group of Parchman prisoners who were let out for public appearances.

 

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