Feb 12 2012

From Plantation to Penitentiary: Music as History & Testimony

I have written before about the role of music in the lives of imprisoned black people particularly in the South by highlighting Angela Davis’s analysis of the song Chain Gang Blues. However, it was only a cursory consideration of how music described the Southern black experience of incarceration in the early 20th century.

Many people are familiar with prison worksongs without perhaps knowing much about their origins or purpose. In reviewing the book “Wake Up the Dead” by Bruce Jackson, Craig Ruskey describes the nature and value of prison worksongs:

Prison inmates were put to work in the various institutions where they were housed. Working in the cotton or tobacco fields, road and chain gangs, or clearing forests, there were different types of songs for each type of labor. A team would choose a leader as their singer, usually a man with a clear voice who could easily be heard. ‘Proper’ singing wasn’t necessary but the volume of the voice was. Sometimes, teams or crews of as many as eight men were put to work cutting a tree down, with each member of that team supplied an axe. The reason the worksong was so important to the team was simple; with eight men swinging individual axes at the same target, without a rhythm to work by, havoc would be the natural outcome! Simply put, it was a matter of the downbeat for one team to swing, and the upbeat for the other team to swing. In an eight man team, four men would follow the lead voice on the downbeat, so as they would swing their axes into the base of a tree, the opposite team would be singing a refrain and pulling their axes away from the tree. Road gangs and chain gangs would usually work with hoes or picks and in a straight line. Again, the leader would be the man with the clearest voice and he would start a song by singing the first line, then the entire team would use that rhythm and sing the second line. Field workers had songs of a more personal nature as they worked individually, singing primarily for their own enjoyment and to pass the time.

“Go Down Old Hannah” is a song that seems to have originated from black prisoners. Here is a recording of the song made at a Texas Prison Camp by the Lomaxes.

Former prisoner and blues legend Leadbelly recorded his own version of this worksong.

He explained how he first came across the song:

They called the sun Old Hannah because it was hot and they just give it a name. That’s what the boys called it when I was in prison. I didn’t hear it before I went down there. The boys were talking about Old Hannah – I kept looking and I didn’t see no Hannah, but they looked up and said, “That’s the sun.”

I hope to write more in depth about prison worksongs as American cultural artifacts in the future. Today I want to focus, instead, on the ways that Southern blacks who had been imprisoned expressed their reenslavement after Emancipation through song. I contend that these songs of the early to mid 20th century represent testimonials about the injustice of the criminal legal system for blacks.

The convict lease system and the chain gang were so prevalent in the South that they inspired many songs besides Chain Gang Blues. One of these songs titled “Standin’ On the Corner” has been recorded by several artists and has been reinterpreted many times. The song dates back to the early 20th century and in it, the singer usually describes how he was “Standin’ on the corner, doin’ no harm,” when “Up come a policeman and grab me by the arm.” He is taken to a judge, who winks at the policeman and says “Nigger you get some work to do,” and sends him “shackle bound” for six months on the chain gang.

Below is one version of the song that I could find on Youtube. It isn’t my ideal version but it offers an opportunity for those who’ve never heard the song to hear it performed for the first time.

In the post-Emancipation South, black people knew that they could be picked up randomly for anything. The Black Codes criminalized “vagrancy,” unemployment, and all kinds of other things. As such, the theme of wrongful imprisonment permeates many of the prison-inspired songs that were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the South. One famous song titled “Penal Farm Blues” describes the experience of being snatched up and imprisoned for no apparent reason:

Early one morning : on my way to the penal farm
Baby all I’ve done : ain’t done nothing wrong

Loaded in the *dog* wagon : and down the road we go
Oh baby : oh baby you don’t know

Into the office : then to the bathhouse below
And with a light shower : baby we change our clothes

All last night : baby it seemed so long
All I’ve done : I ain’t done nothing wrong

I’ll tell you people : the penal farm is a lonesome place
And no one there : to smile up in your face

You can listen to Scrapper Blackwell’s version of the song below:

These songs of prison and captivity shaped what we have come to know as the blues. As I mentioned in my earlier post about Chain Gang Blues, Angela Davis suggests that imprisonment was a central theme in blues music. This is borne out over and over. One of my favorite musicians, the great John Lee Hooker (who Bonnie Rait re-introduced to the mainstream in the 1990s) recorded his version of Prison Bound in 1949. In the song, he tackles the important ideas of the separation from loved ones and the sense of abandonment that can come from being incarcerated.

When they had my trial, baby
You know you couldn’t be found
When they had my trial
Baby, you could not be found
But it’s too late to cry, baby
Your daddy’s prison bound

I have lamented the fact that current hip hop artists seem to shy away from creating art that reflects substantively on either their personal experiences of incarceration or on prison reform more broadly. This makes me appreciate the prison-inspired music of the early 20th century all the more. The songs are historical artifacts that shed light on our collective past. I wonder what artifacts future generations will be examining to understand our current epidemic of mass incarceration. It’s hard to think of any songs from our era that might endure in the way that Chain Gang Blues has.