This week we hear some amazing prison songs, beginning with historical recordings from Louisiana and Mississippi recorded by Alan Lomax and Dr. Harry Oster in the late 1940’s and 50’s. Lomax captured the sounds of work songs and axe gangs back in the Jim Crow South in his field recordings for the Library of Congress. This is some of the rawest music I can think of.
Lomax once said, “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.”
We then hear a new recording of prison songs from the impoverished, land-locked African nation of Malawi. The Malawi songs don’t seem to reflect the desperate lives of those poor souls incarcerated in the Zomba Maximum Security Prison, where food is scarce and disease is rampant. Some songs even sound buoyant. The producer of this recent recording is Ian Brennan, known for his work with Tinariwen and the Malawi Mouse Boys.
We close the program with gypsy flamenco from a prison contest held in Granada, Spain. Inmates from various provinces of Spain submitted over 150 cassette tapes for a chance to win 5,000 pesetas and a reduction of the time being served. The winners were guitarist José Serrano, who was serving a 25-year sentence for homicide, and Antonio El Agujetas, the son of the late flamenco master Manuel El Agujetas, who was serving a 15-year sentence for drug dealing. We’ll hear a powerful buleria featuring José Serrano. In 1997, the two winners were brought to the studio chained and under armed guard for this recording.
The producer of this CD, Two Cries of Freedom: Gypsy Flamenco from the Prisons of Spain, was José Arrebola Rivera (Presidente de la Confederacción Andaluza de Peñas Flamencas). He said of the recording that this cante jondo flamenco (deep song, the most intense form) was the Spanish equivalent of the Delta Blues. The music is simple, powerful, and honest. I think you will feel that.
Banner image above: Lomax, A., photographer. [Prison compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana. Leadbelly Huddie Ledbetter in the foreground]. Angola Louisiana United States, 1934. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2007660073/.
Rhythm Planet Playlist: 3/3/17
- Jimpson and Axe Gang / “No More, My Lord” / Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm, 1947-48. Vol. 1: Murderous Home / Rounder
- Bama / “Stackerlee” / Prison Songs, Vol. 1: Murderous Home / Rounder
- “22” and Group / “When I Went to Leland” / Prison Songs, Vol. 2: Don’tcha hear Poor Mother Calling? / Rounder
- Interview with Bama / “How I Got in the Penitentiary” / Prison Songs, Vol. 1: Murderous Home / Rounder
- Interview with Dobie Red / “About Prison Singers” / Prison Songs, Vol. 2: Don’tcha hear Poor Mother Calling? / Rounder
- Robert Pete Williams / “So Much is Happenin’ in the News” / Angola Prison Spirituals / Arhoolie Records
- Tom Dutson and Robert Pete Williams / “Dig My Grave With A Silver Spade” / Angola Prison Spirituals / Arhoolie Records
- Vincent Saulos / “I Am Done With Evil” / Zomba Prison Project: “I Will Not Stop Singing” / Six Degrees
- Elias Chimwali / “Sister, Take Good Care of Your Husband” / Zomba Prison Project: “I Will Not Stop Singing” / Six Degrees
- Stefano Nyirenda / “Aids Has No Cure” / Zomba Prison Project: “I Will Not Stop Singing” / Six Degrees
- José Serrano & Antonio “El Agujetas” / “Bulerías” / Two Cries of Freedom: Gypsy Flamenco From the Prisons of Spain / ROIR