Parchman Farm Work Songs – 22, Hard Hair, Little Red & Tangle Eye “Early in the Morning”
Mississippi State Penitentiary, or Parchman Farm, is known as one of the toughest prisons in the United States. But it’s also known for producing some of the Delta’s darkest and most powerful music. While cataloguing rural American music for the Library of Congress, Alan and John Lomax made the first of several trips to the Farm. What they captured is astounding. The prison’s talented jailbirds included legends like Booker White, who sang extensively about Parchman.
The Lomaxes recorded a lot of great music, and discovered some blues titans behind bars—including Leadbelly and recent parolee Son House. But nothing compares to the Parchman Farm work-songs. Laboring for hours in the hot sun, the prisoners turned to song to pass the time, as well as vocalize their pain. They’d cadence work to the music, using their chains, their tools—axes or hoes—to provide percussion. And they’d sing what they couldn’t say.
Alan Lomax was one of the great American folk music collectors of the 20th century. The son of pioneering folklorist John A. Lomax, together they traveled the country gathering recordings for the Library of Congress. Using primitive equipment–a microphone and tape deck that weighed over 400 pounds–they “discovered” and recorded some of the greatest folk and blues musicians of all time. A couple of prisoners—Bukka White and Leadbelly; a recent parolee—Son House; a young sharecropper who’d only learned guitar two years before—Muddy Waters. The list goes on. Alan would carry on recording songs and interviews for his entire life. His collections are now publicly available online thanks to his foundation, the Association for Cultural Equity.
Parchman Farm, or the Mississippi State Penitentiary, is the oldest maximum-security prison in the state of Mississippi. Built in 1901, by the prisoners themselves, Parchman became known as one of the toughest prisons in the United States. The prison operated on a convict lease system–prisoners were rented out to perform hard labor. In order to cadence their work, as well as pass the time, prisoners turned to work songs. Such a tradition survived into the 20th century among black convicts because southern penitentiaries were just copies of 19th century plantations. These songs would not have been performed for leisure or entertainment. They could only have been born of impossibly terrible conditions.
A work song actually helps the work that’s being done. It sets a pace that prevents anyone from falling behind—a dangerous prospect when “black betty” or the whip, is close by. Most songs are structured around the call of the leader, which is then answered by the group. Percussion? Axes, hoes, and chains.
Alan Lomax and his father John recorded first visited Parchman in 1933. Alan would return a number of times to record the changing work songs. They recorded at a number of other southern prisons. Texas was particularly famous for its convict choruses. But Parchman has held, and perhaps produced, some truly spectacular musicians. There are those like Bukka White—released thanks to a pardon by the governor, a fan of his music—who left the prison and went on to a recording career. And then there are those whose stunning poetry was captured only briefly, in these recordings. Work song leaders known as ‘88’ and ‘22’. Bama, a prisoner recorded on Lomax’s 1948 trip to Parchman. It’s not a work song, but his a cappella version of the bad-man ballad Stackerlee is one of the most chilling recordings out there. Period.