Various Artists—Parchman Farm: Photographs And Field Recordings, 1947-1959 (Dust-to-Digital)

While Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, slavery was still a festering chancre upon the American soul in the middle of the 20th century. Not only were African Americans still oppressed by legal and social codes expressly designed to keep them down, on prison plantations like the Mississippi State Penitentiaries at Lambert and Parchman, they were still being exploited in ways fundamentally unchanged since before the civil war. The father and son folklore team of John and Alan Lomax supposed that the work songs sung by inmates at these facilities were expressions of a culture that was on the way out; change, however long deferred and bitterly fought, was still afoot, and they wanted to document their “exquisite musicality” before it disappeared. 

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Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice by David M. Oshinsky

The brutal conditions and inhuman treatment of African-Americans in Southern prisons has been immortalized in blues songs and in such movies as Cool Hand Luke. Now, drawing on police and prison records and oral histories, David M. Oshinsky presents an account of Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm; what it tells us about our past is well worth remembering in a nation deeply divided by race. Two 8-page photo inserts. [book link]

Negro Prison Songs - Tradition TLP 1020 (1958)

‘Negro Prison Songs’ is a selection of 17 recordings from Alan Lomax’s 1947 recording trip to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The remaining recordings are available on the the Association for Cultural Equity’s ’Global Jukebox’.

Tradition records was a short-lived nonprofit folksong label founded by Diane Hamilton (Guggenheim). Their wikipedia page says this LP was published in 1958, but that the label wasn’t sold to Everest Records until 1961, so this must be a later pressing.

The songs reflect the hard lives of the workers/prisoners at 'Parchman Farm’ under the Trusty system. Prisoners worked long days in a profit-driven cotton plantation and endured physical punishments just shy of torture if they rebelled. 'How I Got in the Penitentiary’ is a puzzling interview with an anonymous inmate who has kept his sense of humor despite it all, and is probably my favorite right now, 'Prettiest Train’ a close second.

Download 'Negro Prison Songs’ (67 MB)

Song leader and Mississippi State Penitentiary inmate Heuston Earms discusses work-songs, his time in the penitentiary, his childhood and parents’ fights, and the murder that landed him in prison. Recorded by Alan Lomax at Parchman’s Camp B, Lambert, Miss., September 19-20, 1959. Earms told Lomax he was eligible for parole in 1962; when and if he got out of Parchman is unknown. He died July 4, 1989. His place of death was listed as Tutwiler, Miss., 16 miles southwest of the Lambert camp.

Officially known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman Farm is a prison that is run like a plantation. Founded in the early 1920’s as a way of producing a massive cash crop at almost no expense, Parchman served a social function as well. In Jim Crow Mississippi, it didn’t take much for a black man to be sent to the “country farm.” The threat (and reality) of Parchman was a way for Mississippi to enforce Jim Crow policies. Once there, prisoners were subjected to slavery-like conditions, with racial segregation and arbitrary punishment. Unlike most prisons, Parchman had no fences and no guards. It was miles upon miles of endless farm-land, nothing but flat open space with nowhere to hide. Escape was further deterred by Parchman’s famous bloodhounds and the trustee system. Instead of paid, trained correction officers, Parchman empowered certain prisoners to serve as trustees.

Prettiest Train
  • Prettiest Train
  • Alan Lomax Collection
  • Prison Songs, V. 1: Murderous Home

“Prettiest Train,” sung by the work gang led by “22” at the Parchman Farm (the Mississippi State Penitentiary) and recorded by Alan Lomax, 1947-48 or 1959 on Prison Songs: Volume I, Murderous Home

[The lyrics are an approximation that I found online and then edited based on my own faulty hearing. They don’t always translate anyway–I use the lyrics just to parse through the scratchy sound so I can sing along loudly; this song stems from an oral tradition, and is best perpetuated that way.]

Prettiest train that I ever seen, man.
Prettiest train, my Lawd, I ever seen,
Prettiest train, Lawd, ever seen,
I declare, she run down to Jackson, back to New Orleans,
New Orleans, a-New Orleans,
I swear she ran down to Jackson, back to New Orleans.

Mattie, when you marry, marry a railroad man, (3x)
I declare, no ev’y day Sunday, dollar in your hand,
In your hand, in your hand,
I declare now, no ev’y Sunday, dollar in your hand!

Mattie, when you marry, don’t marry no convict man, (3x)
I declare now, ev’y day Monday, hoe handle in your hand,
In your hand, in your hand,
I declare now, ev’y day Monday, hoe handle in your hand.

Prettiest woman that I ever seen, (3x)
I declare now, Rampart Street-a, down in New Orleans,
New Orleans, a-New Orleans,
I declare now, Rampart Street, down in New Orleans!

You go to Jackson just to show your clothes, (3x)
I go to Jackson play them dicin’ holes,
Dicin’ holes, dicin’ holes,
I declare now, I go to Jackson, play them dicin’ holes.

You go to Memphis, don’t you hang around, (3x)
I swear now, polic’ll catch and you’re workhouse bound,
Workhouse bound, workhouse bound,
I swear now, police’ll catch and you’re workhouse bound.

I have always had a phobia of Parchman, since seeing the scars on the back of a former inmate. This was in 1968, and I was 16 and I was a drummer at Hilltop Lounge. When the deputies would make their rounds, if we were on break I had to go sit behind the drums to keep from having my ID or breath checked. I was told to come look at a man who was displaying his Parchman trophy.
—  Lion Mojo (real name unknown)

Recorded over 60 years ago at Parchman Farm “these songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River."  Alan Lomax