Joe Savage sings “Peace In The Valley,” recorded by Alan Lomax in Greenville, MS in 1978. Joe was one of four muleskinners interviewed by Lomax about his experiences working as a laborer building Mississippi’s massive levee system and his time spent at Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary) at Lambert Camp and Camp 1. He spoke about the brutality he faced while serving time, and sang several songs capturing his emotions.
I photographed blues singer/songwriter/guitarist R.L. Burnside in the field beside his house in Holly Springs, Mississippi in the 1990s.
Burnside was born in the next county over in 1926 but by the mid-1940s he had moved to Chicago to find work. He found work, and he also found his cousin Muddy Waters, but in the span of one year in that city his father, two brothers and his uncle were all murdered. He moved back to Mississippi in the 1950s where he worked as a farmer during the day and played the juke joints at night. In the mid-50s he killed a man during a dice game and was incarcerated at the infamous Parchman Farm. He would comment years later about the incident, “I didn’t mean to kill nobody. I just meant to shoot the son of a bitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord.“
During the 1990s Burnside stayed busy touring and making records but his health was deteriorating. He had stopped playing by the early 2000s and died on September 1, 2005 leaving behind 13 children, 35 grandchildren and some very good records.
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.
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]
“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.
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.
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.
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.
This song is an example of Son House’s brilliance as a songwriter and interpreter of other people’s music. The story behind it is that during the 1930 Paramount sessions in Grafton, WI, recording director Art Laibley asked House if he could record a song that sounded like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” in tribute to Jefferson who had recently passed away. House then wrote “Mississippi County Farm Blues” in his hotel room in Grafton - weaving together the melody and themes from “‘Kept Clean” with his own Delta-style slide work and impassioned lyrics about his experiences in notorious Parchman Farm prison. The resulting recording is a truly unique song, embodying the art of songsterdom at its peak (see also Lead Belly post), and is one of House’s most hauntingly memorable recordings. He continued refining the song and recorded another version in 1942 as “County Farm Blues,” musically updated and with new lyrics expanding on the themes introduced in the original.