Tuesday, May 19, 2009

VA - Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm 1947-48 Volume 2: Don'tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling

Prison Songs - Historical Recordings From Parchman Farm 1947-1948 Vol. 2 Don'tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling

Here is the second volume of prison songs, a collection of field recordings made by Alan Lomax during his visit to Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm state prison in 1947 and on February 9, 1948. The songs collected on Volume 1 were originally released by the Tradition label as Negro Work Songs. Volume 2 features songs that didn't make the cut for the original Negro Work Songs release, though one shouldn't let this fact persuade them from giving this a listen. The songs on Vol. 2 have somewhat of a harsher quality to them, which may be why they were excluded from the original release, yet the heartfelt soul of prisoner's . As with the first volume, there are also tracks featuring Lomax interviewing various prisoners on a variety of subjects, although this volume contains several more than the first.

"For those who may not know, the worksong tradition 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."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.

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 http://allmusicnews.wordpress.com

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." - Fred McCormick

"These songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River. They were born out of the very rock and earth of this country, as black hands broke the soil, moved, reformed it, and rivers of stinging sweat poured upon the land under the blazing heat of Southern skies, and are mounted upon the passion that this struggle with nature brought forth. They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen." - Alan Lomax

Year of Release: 1958/Reissue 1997
Label: Tradition/Rounder
Genre: Field Recording, Folk, Blues

Track List:
1. Don'cha Hear Poor Mother Calling
2. John Henry
3. Strongest Man I Ever Saw
4. Well, I Wonder
5. Lies
6. I'm Goin' Home
7. More Lies
8. O' Berta
9. Disability Boogie Woogie
10. O Rose
11. Hollers
12. Stewball
13. Fox Chase
14. Katy Left Memphis
15. About Prison Singers
16. Rosie
17. High Rollin' Sergeant
18. Garbage Man
19. When I Went to Leland
20. Prodigal Son
21. I'm Goin' to Memphis
22. (Untitled) - (hidden track)

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