It ain't but the one thing I done wrong
I stayed in Mississippi just a day too long
(Mississippi Prison Song)
Todays show deals with blues songs about prison, both commercial recordings and field recordings by actual prisoners. In the segregation era down south it wasn't hard for African-Americans to find themselves going to prison over a host of offenses. They were often treated harshly and unfairly by the legal system. Unfortunately even today the prison system has a disproportionate number of African-Americans and tales of being unfairly targeted by the criminal system all too common.
As for blues singers, their very profession was a dangerous one. The criminal element in the south gravitated to the black sectors of cities like New Orleans, Memphis or Atlanta, sectors that were treated as "wide open" and virtually beyond the law. It was the rough and tumble world of gambling joints, saloon, brothels and juke joints that employed the blues singer and there was always the possibility of trouble with the law. Memphis in the 1920's, for example, was known as the "Murder Capital of America", with over hundred homicides a year, 90 percent of the victims were black. Many blues singers were victims and many were perpetrators; men like Bukka White, Texas Alexander, J.T. Smith, Son House, Pat Hare and Lightnin' Hopkins all did stints in prison.
Folklorists like John and Alan Lomax, Harry Oster, Lawrence Gellert and Bruce Jackson went to southern prisons like Parchman Farm, Angola, Huntsville, Sugar Land, Ramsey Prison Farm and others to record blues and work songs. On the surface the songs described incidents and experiences of the singers but on the other hand I think they can be viewed as a subtle form of protest against an unjust system. African-Americans had little or no outlet to voice their opinions and concerns prior to the civil rights era outside of recorded music. In The Land Where The Blues Began, Lomax had this to say regarding prison songs: "They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen." Bruce Jackson, who recorded in southern prisons in the 1960's and 70's, explained: "Southern agricultural penitentiaries were in many respects replicas of nineteenth-century plantations, where groups of slaves did arduous work by hand, supervised by white men with guns and constant threat of awful physical punishment . . .. It is hardly surprising that the music of plantation culture — the work songs — went to the prisons as well." A New York Post reporter wrote as late as 1957: "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."
In 1932 John Lomax was retained by the Library of Congress to make recordings. Lomax and his son Alan hit the road with 500 pounds of recording equipment and covered sixteen thousand miles over six months. As Lomax explained: “Our best field was the southern penitentiaries…we went to all eleven of them…"
It was on that trip that they ran across Leadbelly and secured his early parole. "We agreed to make a record of his petition on the other side of one of his favorite ballads, 'Goodnight Irene'. I took the record to Governor Allen on July 1. On August 1 Leadbelly got his pardon. On September 1 I was sitting in a hotel in Texas when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and there was Leadbelly with his guitar, his knife, and a sugar bag packed with all his earthly belongings. He said, 'Boss, you got me out of jail and now I've come to be your man'" This tale by Lomax, while colorful, has been in dispute as are many of his other recollections. On today's program we play "Midnight Special" a song that's become closely associated with Leadbelly. This version with the Golden Quartet is probably my favorite of this oft recorded song.
The Lomax's continued to visit and record in prisons in the 1940's and 1950's. Alan Lomax returned to Parchman Farm in 1947-48 and made some remarkable recordings, 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. 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. During this period Lomax interviewed and recorded Joe Savage and said of him “he was by far the youngest and most damaged.” Jumping to 1980 we hear Savage recount his prison experience and sing on his harrowing "Joe's Prison Camp Holler."
Bukka White was recorded by Lomax in Parchman Farm in 1939. He was Convicted of murder and sentenced to life in 1937. He was still under contract for Vocalion ("Shake 'em On Down" was a big hit from the session). Lomax recorded him doing two numbers: "Sic 'Em Dogs On" and " Po' Boy." He was released two years later probably through the actions of his music agent Lester Melrose. His recordings from 1940 show the prison experience was still on his mind on songs like "Where Can I Change My Clothes" (prison clothes), "District Attorney Blues" and his famous "Parchman Farm Blues:"
Judge give me life this mornin' down on Parchman Farm (2x)
I wouldn't hate it so bad, but I left my wife in mourn
Oh listen you men, I don't mean no harm (2x)
If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm
We got to work in the mornin', just at dawn of day (2x)
Just at the settin' of the sun, that's when the work is done
Recorded just a few days apart were a group of fine female singers. Woman in Mississippi were rarely sent to the state penitentiary but Parchman did open a woman's camp in 1915. They canned vegetables, ran the prison laundry and worked dawn-to-dusk shifts in a sewing room making clothes, bedding and mattresses for the entire farm. Lomax recorded some of these woman in the Woman’s Sewing Room in 1939, including the remarkable Mattie May Thomas. We feature her singing unaccompanied on "No Mo’ Freedom" and "Dangerous Blues" where she describes a violent life:
You keep talking about the dangerous blues
If I had my pistol I'd be dangerous too
You may be a bully, but I don't know
But I'll fix you so you won't gimmie no trouble, in the world I know
Less well known than the Lomax's was Bruce Jackson who recorded extensively in the 1960's and 70's: "I started recording in Texas prisons in July 1964. I think Texas had about 12,000 prisoners in 14 prisons back then (they’ve got more than 150,000 prisoners in 105 state-run and private prisons now). My primary interest in Texas was the black convict worksongs…" Pete Seeger and Toshi Seeger, their son Daniel, and folklorist Bruce Jackson visited a Texas prison in Huntsville in March of 1966 which resulted in the film and book, Wake Up Dead Man. Another remarkable recording Jackson made was an LP by J.B. Smith titled Ever Since I Have Been A Man Full Grown issued on Takoma, of which we play "I Got Too Much Time For The Crime I Done." The centerpiece is the title track, a 24-minute opus drawing on imagery and lyrics from a wide variety of traditional sources.
One of the most well known images of the old justice system is the chain gang. The chain gangs originated as a way to create extensive quality roads. Convict labor in road work was more economically efficient than using compulsory free labor as they could be worked harder, for longer hours, and over a more sustained period of time. Georgia was the first state to begin to use the chain gang system to work male felony convicts outside of the prison walls. The chains were wrapped around the prisoners' ankles, shackling five prisoners together while they worked, ate, and slept. Chain gangs became very economically and politically popular among most southern politicians as they witnessed convicts working from sunup to sundown in Georgia. We spin chain gang tales today by Kokomo Arnold, Ma Rainey and Fred McMullen's harrowing "De Kalb Chain Gang" (De Kalb County, Georgia):
Ahh liquor and a gun, cause me ache and pain (2x)
And they give me six to twenty years, on the De Kalb county gang
And I tell all you people that ain't no place to go (2x)
Well they treat you cruel, dog you from morning til' night
There were also female chain gangs and Ma Rainey tells their tale on her "Chain Gang Blues" from 1925:
The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down (2x)
Just a poor gal in trouble, I know I'm county road bound
Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe (2x)
And a ball and chain everywhere I go
Chains on my feet, padlock on my hand (2x)
It's all on account of stealing a woman's man
Several of the blues artists featured today knew first hand about the prison experience. Among them were Texas Alexander who served at least two prison terms including a stint in Paris, Texas, for allegedly killing his wife. Alexander's songs reflected prison life in songs like "Levee Camp Moan Blues" and "Penitentiary Blues." Alexander's one time running partner, Lightnin' Hopkins, did a mid-1930’s stint in Houston’s County Prison Farm. Son House's career was interrupted when he shot a man dead at a house party in Lyons, MS in 1928 and was quickly sentenced to imprisonment at Parchman Farm. He ended up only serving two years of his sentence and was released in 1929 or early 1930. His "County Farm Blues" is a vivid description of southern justice:
Down South, when you do anything, that's wrong (3x)
They'll sure put you down on the county farm
Put you down under a man call "Captain Jack" (2x)
He sure write his name up and down your back
Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade (3x)
Wish to God that you hadn't never been made
On a Sunday the boys be lookin' sad (3x)
Just wonderin' about how much time they had
J.T. "Funny Papa" Smith 's career purportedly came to an abrupt end during the mid-'30s, when he was arrested for murdering a man over a gambling dispute; Smith was found guilty and imprisoned, and is believed to have died in his cell circa 1940. He describes the prison life in our selection "County Jail Blues" plus "Hard Luck Man Blues" and the unissued "Life In Prison Blues." Pat Hare, who wrote and recorded "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" in May 1954, then took the song's message a step further and killed his girlfriend and a police officer in mysterious circumstances eight years later. He received a life sentence in 1964 for this double murder and spent the last sixteen years of his life in a Minneapolis jail, dying of cancer in 1980.
Discovered in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Robert Pete Williams became one of the great blues discoveries during the folk boom of the early '60s. In 1956, he shot and killed a man in a local club. Williams claimed the act was in self-defense, but he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was sent to Angola prison, where he served for two years before being discovered by folklorist Dr. Harry Oster and Richard Allen. The pair recorded Williams performing several of his own songs, which were all about life in prison. Our selection today, "Prisoner's Talking Blues", is one of his more memorable prison songs. Impressed with the guitarist's talents, Oster and Allen pleaded for a pardon for Williams. The pardon was granted in 1959, after he had served a total of three and a half years. For the first five years after he left prison, Williams could only perform in Louisiana, but his recordings,which appeared on Folklyric, Arhoolie, and Prestige, among other labels , were popular and he received positive word of mouth reviews. In 1964 he played the Newport Folk Festival. Williams made many other recordings circa 1959-160 in Louisiana's notorious Angola Prison. In addition to several Williams CD's available, Oster's prison recordings can be found on collection like Angola Prisoner's Blues, Prison Worksongs and Angola Prison Spirituals all reissued on Arhoolie.
One of our final numbers is Calvin Leavy's "Cummins Prison." Leavy is currently serving life plus 20 years in Cummins Prison for drug dealing. Ironically Leavy made this record twenty years before he was busted. He cut a follow-up called "Free from Cummins Prison." He even wore a fake prison uniform in one of his publicity photos long before he was arrested. I heard Leavy was up for parole but haven't heard anything since.