Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Blues Jukebox #3

I expect most folks here in the States realize that February is African American History Month, & as such I wanted to delve a bit more into blues roots & history in February’s two Friday Blues Jukebox installments. In order to do this, we’re going to start by looking at a very harsh scene—a scene that's a significant part of this country’s history, but is not widely known. This is the prison farm system of the reconstruction & Jim Crow eras, & specifically, Parchman Farm —now the Mississippi State Penitentiary. I’ll be writing about the background & not the songs themselves—work songs sung by the inmates in field recordings from the 1940s; they’re too strong musically & emotionally to need my words, so I’ll mix the videos in with the text.

Parchman Farm as it existed in the late 19th century & well into the 20th was essentially a labor camp for convicts—part of Mississippi’s “penal plantation system.” The prison was conceived by Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman, whose idea (according to the book, Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice) was “that a prison farm, ‘like an efficient slave plantation,’ was necessary to provide young African-Americans with the ‘proper discipline, strong work habits, and respect for white authority’ that the end of slavery had eliminated.” (quoted from the page linked to above).

Parchman Farm was sued by civil rights lawyer Roy Haber & four inmates in 1971 with the charge that conditions there constituted cruel & inhuman treatment. “In the case, Gates v. Collier, federal judge William C. Keady found that Parchman Farm violated the Constitution and was an affront to 'modern standards of decency'. Among other reforms, the accommodation was made fit for human habitation and the trusty system (where lifers were armed with rifles and set to guard other inmates) was abolished.” (quoted from Wikipedia)

Some notable men have been imprisoned there—some of the 1961 Freedom Riders served time at Parchman Farm, & two very famous bluesmen, Booker T. “Bukka” White & Son House also spent time there as inmates, & both wrote songs about it. Since today’s songs are all “work songs” from the prison, I haven’t included White’s “Parchman Farm” or House’s “Mississippi County Farm Blues,” but the links will take you to YouTube versions, & I plan to feature them in an upcoming Friday Blues Jukebox post.

John & Alan Lomax visited Parchman several times to record the inmates—in fact, there’s a version of Bukka White playing his “Poor Boy Long Ways from Home” that was recorded at the prison—& that’s the source of the three recordings today. The structure of these songs, with the call & response & the leader “lining out a phrase to be answered by the other singers, is the very fundamental stuff of blues music. Those of us who perform blues music today—especially those of us from a European rather than African heritage—need to be aware that the blues grew up in the atmosphere of Reconstruction & Jim Crow & conditions much harsher than most of us will experience.

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  1. I recently saw the classic movie "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang", 1932, which ties in with your post today.

  2. Hi Willow: That's a great film to bring up in this context, because as I understand it, that film is credited for raising consciousness about the conditions of prison labor camps. Sadly, that consciousness didn't bring much reform to places like Parchman & other "plantation prisons" designed specifically & explicitly for African-American men. The recordings in today's post were made over a dozen years after "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" was released.

  3. What a beautiful post!
    We received The Days of Wine and Roses today and have been reading aloud from your book throughout dinner.

    You are awesome.

  4. Hi Reya: Glad you liked this post, & your news about the book made my day--no, my weekend! Thanks.


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