by D’Arcy Rix-Hayes
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with one in every 15 people in the country expected to go behind bars. According to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow “more African American adults are under correctional control today…than were enslaved in 1850.” In many ways, slavery was never abolished, but given a new name. Under Jim Crow law, African Americans were treated horribly, especially in prison. Consider the convict leasing system which took hold in Mississippi towards the end of the nineteenth century and went on for decades: those convicted could be were leased to farmers and businessmen and “Convicts dropped from exhaustion, pneumonia, malaria, frostbite, consumption, sunstroke, dysentery, gunshot wounds and “shackle poisoning” says historian David Oshinsky – and in the process made fortunes for plantation owners. In segregated communities black people often did not have to commit any crime, in order to be arrested and subsequently jailed, simply being accused of one was enough.
Remarkably, music has always thrived in chains – mostly as a survival mechanism. Slaves, convicts and sharecroppers all sang to keep their sanity and hopes alive, whether in unison to keep their minds off their aching bodies, or during whatever free time they had to keep spirits up. When father and son musicologist team John and Alan Lomax embarked on their cross-country road trip in 1933 to collect and record folk songs for the Library of Congress, they discovered that their most productive visits were to penitentiaries. It was on one of these trips to Angola Prison that they met and recorded a man named Huddy Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. His most famous song, “The Midnight Special” was a tune he had learned during an earlier incarceration in Texas. It was a song about life in prison and a train that passed by outside at midnight which lit up the singer’s cell. It was not the first great prison song, nor the last, but a fine example of how pain, loneliness and the hope of freedom can turn into great music. Below are ten excellent numbers from the Document catalogue that encapsulate different aspects of life behind bars.
1. “Ball And Chain Blues”, Peg Leg Howell
One of the first recorded products of the Atlanta blues community of the pre-war era, Peg Leg Howell bridged the gap between the early country-blues sound and the 12-bar stylings to follow, with his guitar work evolving over time to include finger-picking and slide techniques. Born Joshua Barnes Howell in Eatonton, Georgia on March 5, 1888, he was a self-taught guitarist who acquired his nickname after a 1916 run-in with an irate brother-in-law which ended in a shotgun wound to the leg and, ultimately, amputation. Unable to continue working as a farmhand, he migrated to Atlanta, where he began pursuing music full-time; in addition to playing street corners for passing change, Howell supplemented his income by bootlegging liquor, an offense which led to a one-year prison sentence in 1925. Soon after his release, he signed to Columbia.
“Stripes on my back, chain found ’round my leg
This ball and chain ’bout to kill me dead “
2. “Prisoner Blues”, George Clarke
Singer and harmonica player George Clarke only cut three sides for Bluebird in 1936.
While there’s no biographical information known about him, the composer credits on the track are to George Watson, which may be this artist’s real name.
On Prisoner Blues he sings over a strummed guitar “Ain’t it a crying shame, I’m on my way to prison and ain’t done a thing”.
3. “Rock Pile Blues”, Sylvester Weaver
Sylvester Weaver was a great early pioneer of blues guitar. Here, his bright and clear voice elevates this number greatly, singing beautifully of the brutal labor one would face daily working in prison: “I’m gonna ask the Lord, “What on earth have I done?” To get all of these years, working in the red hot sun”
4. “Prison Wall Blues”, Cannon’s Jug Stompers
Led by Gus Cannon on banjo, the Jug Stompers of Memphis were also equipped with a guitar, harmonica, and, of course, a jug. They made lively, upbeat country-blues numbers entertaining people on the street. In “Prison Wall Blues” there’s a somewhat more lighthearted approach to going to prison, even detailing an escape and one line that says “you might as well laugh”. Still though,”When they bring you through that gate / You wish you hadn’t done it, but it’s just too late.” By far the most upbeat number on this list.
5. “Penitentiary Blues”, Blind Lemon Jefferson
One of the earliest and most influential rural blues singers to record, Lemon uses this song to send a message of warning to listeners:
“I want you to stop and study, don’t take nobody’s life, they’ve got walls at the state penitentiary you can’t jump, man they high as the sky”
6. “Jailhouse Blues”, Sleepy John Estes
A true master of his art, Estes lived in poverty his whole life, yet was somehow capable of turning his experiences into enormously compelling music.
His powerful emotive and vocals lead this song straight to your heart.
“Now, I was sittin’ in jail, with my eyes all full of tears / You know I’m glad I didn’t get lifetime, boys, and I escaped the electric chair”
7. “Death Cell Blues”, Blind Willie McTell
Master of the 12-string guitar, McTell needs no introduction. Listen as his mournful singing tells of being falsely imprisoned.
“They got me accused for murder but I haven’t even harmed a
Man / They got me charged with burglin’ and I haven’t even raised my hand”
8. “DeKalb Chain Gang”, Fred McMullen
Fred McMullen recorded for ARC in New York in January 1933, playing immaculate bottleneck blues guitar, whether behind his own vocals or with one or other of the Atlanta guitarists Curley Weaver and Buddy Moss. They also recorded as a trio, with Moss on harmonica. McMullen was listed only once in the 1932 Atlanta City Directory, and Moss maintained that he had returned to his home town of Macon, Georgia, after the session. The intensity of ‘DeKalb Chain Gang’ (‘They whipped me and they slashed me, forty-five all in my side’) suggests that it was autobiographical, and that he may have been on his way home following release from prison when he encountered the Atlanta musicians, however, it could just as easily be a song he learned along the way.
9.“Prison Bound”, Leroy Carr
Many versions of this Leroy Carr penned song exist, with small variations in the lyrics. Each time, the singer paints a clear picture of the sadness in prison over several verses, wishing for freedom. “thinking of my baby and my happy home”.
10. “Chain Gang Blues”, Kokomo Arnold
Released in April 1935 on Decca, this great song finds Arnold shouting over his slide guitar, recanting a tale of being arrested, going to court and eventually to jail, bound in chains.
“I’m layin’ in jail, with my back tied to the wall
Says this whiskey and old bad women was the cause of it all”
- Ball And Chain Blues: 10 Prison Songs From The Document Catalogue - February 25, 2021
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