Sunday, March 26, 2017

Prison: Parchman Farm

Bukka White: Parchman Farm Blues

[purchase]

Mose Allison: Parchman Farm

[purchase]

Johnny Rivers: Parchman Farm

[purchase]

Parchman Farm is one of many blues songs about prison. I could have probably found one blues song for each day of this theme, and I already shared another classic one, The Midnight Special. Why then is Parchman Farm my next choice? As you can hear in the versions I have chosen, the song can be a case study in the transformation of the blues. That also touches on the history of the place. Parchman Farm was a notorious work farm in Mississippi. The inmates were treated harshly, and the profits of the fruits of their labors went mostly to those who ran the prison. But the prisoners also grew their own food, and held various positions within the miniature society that existed there. Some were “trusty shooters”, given the authority to shoot their fellow inmates if they didn’t follow the rules. Parchman Farm also occupies an unusual place in musical history. The inmates there were kept isolated from the outside world, with not even radios permitted. As a result, musical styles in black culture from the nineteenth century that had evolved into new forms on the outside were still preserved in Parchman when John and Alan Lomax and their crew visited there in 1933. Thus, the Lomaxes were able to record and preserve music that provides many clues to the history of the blues.

Bukka White was a prisoner at Parchman Farm, although he wrote the song Parchman Farm Blues a few years after he got out. Nevertheless, the song and White’s style in general represent an early form of the blues, with all of the familiar rules not in place yet. This version was recorded in 1940, and the quality of the recording is typical of the “race records” of that time. Parchman Farm by Mose Allison is clearly based on White’s song, but the transformation is radical enough that Allison is credited as the writer. Allison gives the song his signature jazz-blues treatment, which has influenced many artists, but never been duplicated. From here, many white rock artists who embraced the blues would go on to record the song. Johnny Rivers was still in the early stages of his career in 1965 when he recorded his version, and it predates and may be the template for versions by John Mayall, Johnny Winter, and many others. Rivers was greatly influenced by the blues early in his career. In 1966, Rivers would have his first big hit with Secret Agent Man, and many other pop hits would follow, but he returned to the blues later in his career.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Prison: Aint No Good Chain Gang





purchase [Aint No Good Chain Gang]

Love can make you a prisoner. Love can set you free.

I got the sense that a search of <Prison> resolved to an inordinate number of country songs. You call it: maybe there's no corellation -I thought there might be one. I've got no money on any side here. I love and wish I could play along with the best bluegrass or country players.  But folklore would seem to side with me: The origin of many outlaws? .... country. Bootleggers? ... country. I won t go deeper - it's not my personal opinion... just [insert Mr Trump] ...fact.

So ... apparently lots of prison experience in the realm of country music. Guess that means  there's a lot of content/first hand expeience to write about.  Perhaps (just thinkin).

We've got Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash here doing a song about time inside: "There Aint No Good Chain Gang".

You might take a few seconds to picture the classic chain gang in order to gain some perspective before you prceed. As a good investigative reporter would prompt you, ask: "who, what, where, when... how?" Heck, even the name of this group pushes my point: what does the name Highwaymen evoke?

The Highwaymen were a "country supergroup" -  Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. This song and its album, however, were produced by a slimmed down group: just Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash

My vision of a chain  gang is the swamps of .... somewhere south. A good place to learn some lessons - that is - if you are of the type that learns lessons in prison. He sings:

There aint no good in an evil hearted woman (true)
I aint cut out to be no Jesse James (probably not)
Dont go writing  hot cheques (well ... yes)

Most likely, if you do, you'll end up <a-laying in jail>

Friday, March 24, 2017

Prison: Alan Lomax, Prison recordings, circa 1947-1948


For people that know the work of Alan Lomax, begun in 1946 as ‘field recordings’, the history, and thus the essentiality, of the work is equal to the power of the voices, styles, stories and history he captured. Born in 1915, Lomax spent almost 60 years continuing the work of his equally famous father, John, in recording literal and actual history, as understood through the guise of folk music.  Armed with various recording devices, including an automatic disk recorder, family Lomax traveled the United States and captured the unique songs and sounds and voices—some of which no longer exist—that displayed the entirety of the unique American ethnography of the people that came from so many places to call this land home. 
From Louisiana (Cajun music) to the Midwest and the multi-ethnic immigrant European communities, and especially the American South, from the Mississippi Delta to the Appalachian Mountains—the Lomaxs were able to create an archive that has become a uniquely personal, sociological and historical atlas of living art and expression.  And thus forever preserve various the kind of lives, customs and traditions that would have faded and been forever lost.
Historically, there is no greater sense of touching history than what comes from a tangible connection and the Lomax family were somewhat magician-like in the way they documented lives and the artistic fiber that made so many people who they were, at an ethnic and cultural level, to be sure, but also in what they were beyond their cultural identifiers. To record someone signing, reciting a poem, telling you the story of their life: that is capturing the emotional soul of a being and in their art, their story can be truly understood, without needing analysis or dissection. Art lays bare what is inside someone, and through voice, the strands of one’s emotional DNA are clear. What Alan and John Lomax did was preserve, yes, but they were also capturing history in a way that was never possible before.
Alan Lomax was a great proponent of what he termed “cultural equity" and promoted a movement called “One World.” Today, this would be termed more familiarly as multiculturalism.  What he was after was showing how a shared cultural identity, in all its various forms, was what bound us together, and that our differences did not divide us—it was just the opposite. There are two statements Lomax made in defense of his world view that I feel I have to share. He said both, “The dimension of cultural equity needs to be added to the humane continuum of liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and social justice,” and, "Folklore can show us that this dream is age-old and common to all mankind. It asks that we recognize the cultural rights of weaker peoples in sharing this dream. And it can make their adjustment to a world society an easier and more creative process. The stuff of folklore—the orally transmitted wisdom, art and music of the people can provide ten thousand bridges across which men of all nations may stride to say, “You are my brother.” [1]
Interestingly, Alan Lomax was investigated repeatedly by the FBI for many years though no charges were ever filed against him. What were the Feds looking for on a folklorist armed with a pen and recording equipment? Take a guess…We are talking J. Edgar Hoover’s America, after all…but, I don’t want to go into politics.
You might know that the Lomaxs were the first to put such luminaries as Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Honeyboy Edwards, and Woody Guthrie to tape. The debt we owe to the Lomax family can’t be understated and the Smithsonian’s Folkways label and the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center, make it possible for all the myriad sounds can still be heard, studied and appreciated. ( A note for the historians among us: The Lomaxs traveled much farther afield than the US, and their history is just as fascinating as what they were able to preserve. But for our purposes, we are going to focus on one small portion and geographical region of their body of work.)



Of particular interest to me, and apropos of our theme this round, are the recordings that were captured in the American South, particularly Mississippi in 1947 and 1948. Known as the prison recordings, I can think of no music I’ve ever heard more haunting and visceral. Southern Penitentiaries were often forced labor work camps, and according the Association for Cultural Equality, “Southern agricultural penitentiaries were in many respects replicas of nineteenth-century plantations, where groups of slaves did arduous work by hand, supervised by white men with guns and constant threat of awful physical punishment. It is hardly surprising that the music of plantation culture — the work songs — went to the prisons as well.”  [2]

Drawing on the tradition of work songs sung in the field by slaves on the plantations, work songs in prisons carried much the same function of rhythm and spoke to the same sort of misery and desperation. Meant to help keep time in tandem working gangs, the songs have an undeniable rhythm and a raw ,b ut beautiful cadence. But there is a palpable sense of anguish and misery that cuts through the acapella chorus, a choir of miserable souls bound to some duty, but somehow transcending the despair through the lifting of their voices. Hammer falls, wood cutting, tie-tamping—the sound of tools sinking into wood and striking the earth provide an imperfect rhythm track, but one that is equal ghost to the pained, drawn and anguished vocals.

The Lomaxs made a multitude of these prison recordings at the Parchman Farm, part of the Mississippi State Penitentiary system, and the liner notes to these recordings add to the haunted nature of the songs. The names of the inmates read like a gallery of souls from Dante’s Inferno, which, while it is an oft-used metaphor, seems fitting. One wonders about those men: what had they done to end up there, how long did they last? Dig deeply into the archives and you can listen to some of the non-musical tracks that were recorded, where the inmates talk about just that: what put them in the klink, what they planned on doing once they got out. It’s an amazing piece of preservation, but the songs themselves speak volumes that documentary interviews cannot. The rhythms, the stories the signers tell, are as vivid a portrait of pain and regret as you’ll ever hear. There is something vital in preserving even the saddest, most miserable of human experiences. I spoke of empathy in my previous post, but as an abstract of being invited into a fictional portrayal of a life we’re happy not to have for our own. But, in the prison recordings, there is no hiding from the reality. The longing, the anger, the prayers for release are unadorned by visuals or the writer’s syntactical flourishes. What you hear on these tapes is true, and therefore impossible to ignore for the spirit it carries. Pleas for release, for a woman left behind to remain true, for someone to believe their professed innocence—all these themes and more can be found in the songs, but knowing there is very little “performance” behind the words; the signers are being truthful in the only way that a man behind bars can express his plight in true terms.

With so many powerful songs to choose from, it’s hard to pick one or two that most capture the essential nature of the work. But, two of the more powerful tracks that have always stuck with me are “Early in the Morning” and “Rosie.”

“Early in the Morning” was sung by four inmate at the Parchman Farm in 1947. The palpable pain of the lead vocalist, credited as Tangle Eye, strikes an intense, material counter to the hollow thunking rhythm track which is actually the inmates’ axes striking wood. The lyrics are more about the rhythm than about making meaning. Though there is a bit of humor in what is being said, the lyrics cover traditional subjects that might accompany the experience of a man forced to work, forcibly taken far from home: complaints about having to get up early in the morning, admonishing his woman not to believe stories some other man might be her, and how he’s counting on her to remain faithful. That prayerful begging to keep a promise and remain true is one that can be found throughout these recordings and in “Early in the Morning”, we get a strange bit of juxtaposition, between the work and the woman:
Well-rocks ’n gravel make -a
Make a solid road
It takes a good lookin woman to make a
To make a good lookin whore[3]
Regardless of who he is singing to, Tangle Eye’s voice is fragile as a cracked vase and the axes striking wood, or perhaps it’s hoes striking dirt, bring to mind the desperation of the nearly dead. Or the kind of sadness that makes one wish for that specific release.

The other track I want to highlight is called “Rosie.” “Rosie” resonates with me as it was one of the first selections I heard from the Lomax archive. So, there is that sense of nostalgia, coupled with the power of how a song can muscle its way in and sink into your conscious, thus becoming part of your deeper understanding of music, the kind not easily described in terms that make sense of the feeling.  “Rosie” is a sad song, and a simple one in its sentiment:  be true while I’m away. It’s a classic call and response, the lead singer calling: “Be my woman, gal—“ and the rest of his gang answering back, “—I’ll be your man!” the lead vocal reminds Rosie to “Stick to the promise, gal, that—“ / “—you made me.” And that promise is not marry to “til I go free!”  But, by the end, we have an understanding of what worries the convict most, while his love is out there free and he’s locked away:
Call: "When she walks she reels and-"
Response: "-rocks behind."
Call: "Ain't that enough to worry-"
Response: "-[a] convict's mind."[4]
“Rosie” has a lighter tone than many of the songs in the prison collections, and I’ve heard renditions where Rosie is a young woman who sashays temptingly just beyond the gate, but ever out of the prisoners reach and thus as much a torment as she is a beauty. She might even have made some promises that to a desperate man might mean more than she bargained for. One of the interesting things I read while researching Lomax’s notes was the strange setup of many of these labor camps: "These recordings were made in 1947 in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The singers were all Negro prisoners, who, according to the practice of Mississippi, were serving out their time by working on a huge state cotton plantation in the fertile Yazoo Delta. Only a few strands of wire separated the prison from adjoining plantations. Only the sight of an occasional armed guard or a barred window in one of the frame dormitories made one realize that this was a prison. The land produced the same crop; there was the same work for the Negroes to do on both sides of the fence. And there was no Delta Negro who was not aware of how easy it was for him to find himself on the wrong side of those few strands of barbed wire...”[5]

Being so close to civilization, yet inexorably separated from it, had to be its own explicit kind of torture.

And, regarding that unique sound of the rhythm, and why the prisoners could sing such complex tunes wile working, I found this: “Songs like "Rosie" not only coordinated the dangerous teamwork of several men chopping trees but also made the workers more productive and helped the time pass. As with slave songs, the work songs also helped prisoners give vent to intense pent-up feelings, whether the words were specifically about that or not. Such singing and chanting can also ease the spirit, bring harmony to the group, and can even bring some pleasure to the moment. [6]

The prison recordings have been collected and released in many collections, and the Smithsonian’s Folk Ways releases are a good place to start. You can find a few collections in the Spotify library, as well. To read more about what went into these recordings, who you are hearing, the when and the where, so to speak, there is a wealth of information on the web, but culturalequity.org is an invaluable resource. The site puts the history into a fascinating perspective.

I’ll end with what I touched on earlier: recordings like these, and the rest of the Lomax archives are beyond music, for listening’s sake. Preserving the voices, and thus the experience, of those minority segments of society, either due to simple numbers, marginalization, or poor choices that land one in jail, is essential to understanding who we are as a collective. That sense of collective humanity is one our modern world’s great failings: the lack of recognizing it, in particular. Hearing another’s voice, and the experiences behind that voice, reminds us of the essential sense that we are more connected than we are separate. And when we forget that we really are more similar than different, we tend to forget that first and foremost, we are on this earth to treat each other well. Music, of all the arts, can remind us of this in the most profound ways.




[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Lomax#Cultural_equity
[2] http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-ix.do?ix=session&id=PR47&idType=abbrev&sortBy=abc
[4] https://www.musixmatch.com/lyrics/Alan-Lomax/Rosie

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

PRISON: FRIEND OF THE DEVIL

Rather than dive straight into songs with jail, gaol or prison, I am going to run with the lyrics that alight always in my mind at any mention of prison. I refer to this perennial favourite, by the Darkstar hitmakers themselves. The first version I ever heard, and the one that sticks is the one below, 'Friend of the Devil', covered by Lyle Lovett. This was on my Grateful Dead entry level initiation, on a wonderful and recommended LP, 'Deadicated', a tribute to the band featuring, as well as Lovett, other dignitaries varying from Indigo Girls to Los Lobos, via Burning Spear and Suzanne Vega. It is terrific.


So why did I need this easy entrance? Primarily, fear. As a teenager in the UK, the Dead were a massive iconic template from far way in California. I had read and knew all about them, Haight, the Acid Tests, the Egyptian concerts and triple, quadruple sets featuring, if you were lucky, the aforementioned Darkstar, an old rock and roll standard and, at best, a couple of other songs, spread out and shpongled into epic proportion. It seemed all bit much, a bit exotic for my innocent ears. OK, I got there in the end, actually in my first U.S. jaunt, the sad, usual first american experience of us brits, the wonder(?!) of Orlando. I recall difficulty finding a record store, going on a mini-spree when I found one, jay-walking diagonally across a huge x-roads. Before I knew it I had 3 of their records, including the one with the original version, 1970's 'American Beauty'. (Am I allowed to say it isn't as good?)


I guess I should explain the prison relationship, it being all within the lyrics, a masterpiece of american western gothic, a lyric by Robert Hunter, longterm lyrical cohort to the tunes of Jerry Garcia. (In the interests of fairness, I need to add that New Riders of the Purple Sage guitarist John 'Marmaduke" Dawson also contributed to the song.) I love these story songs of derring do and it is one of the best in the milieu.

I lit up from Reno
I was trailed by twenty hounds
Didn't get to sleep that night
Till the morning came around
I set out running but I'll take my time
A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine
If I get home before daylight
I just might get some sleep tonight
I ran into the Devil, babe
He loaned me twenty bills
I spent that night in Utah
In a cave up in the hills
I set out running etc,
I ran down to the levee
But the Devil caught me there
He took my twenty dollar bill
And he vanished in the air
I set out running etc.
Got two reasons why I cry
Away each lonely night
The first one's named sweet Anne Marie
And she's my heart's delight
Second one is prison, baby
The sheriff's on my trail
And if he catches up with me
I'll spend my life in jail
Got a wife in Chino, babe
And one in Cherokee
First one says she's got my child
But it don't look like me
I set out running etc,
Got two reasons why I cry
Away each lonely night
The first one's named sweet Anne Marie
And she's my heart's delight
Second one is prison, baby
The sheriff's on my trail
And if he catches up with me
I'll spend my life in jail
Got a wife in Chino, babe
The one in Cherokee
The first one says she's got my child
But it don't look like me
I set out running etc.

As ever, the idea of the largely middle class and effete Garcia being in trouble for anything other than his consumables or his tax-return is a little bit laughable, but, hey, rock'n'roll! I have a nagging doubt and concern however as to who, or what was the devil, though. Answers on a postcard.

Meanwhile, get dedicated with 'Deadicated'.



Prison: Jailhouse Rock




As a theme, getting locked up carries a lot of weight and takes on various manifestations: there’s mental prisons of our own making; lonely cells behind actual bars; locks, and chains and the heavy burden of time, doing it and being crushed under it.

It’s really no surprise to see the number of songs related to some variant of the word ‘prison’, not to mention movies. Prison films make up a special genre all their own, and I’m sure you have your favorite. Something about a piece of art that depicts the horrors of losing one’s most fundamental right, their freedom, just begs for a deeper look, and creates in the depiction a purer form of empathy than exists in other genres. Something about being locked away, unable to control even the slightest aspect of your own autonomy, and often subject to the basest of human behaviors, creates in the viewer/listener a sense of fear and sympathy. Simply put, it boils down to: there but for the grace of God…No matter how awful the subject, the lack of freedom makes us pause and wonder. And feel what the prisoner feels.

But, there will be plenty of time to focus on a nice, dark bit of music inspired by prison. For now, let’s have a little fun.

Despite the inherent silliness of this song I’m choosing, or perhaps because the subject leans so precariously toward the dark and the serious, I can’t resist highlighting The Blues Brother’s take on the classic “Jailhouse Rock” for our theme of “Prison.”

The Blues Brothers movie—cable TV ubiquity aside—is a classic. Over the top, gratuitous, destructive, balls to walls in every way, including the straight up marvel of the live musical numbers, The Blues Brothers is one of the films that tends to overcome its own flaws and take on a greater sense of iconic the older it gets.  The musical performances, including Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and more are the strongest aspect of the movie. The all-out musical mayhem and the use of the city of Chicago as a set to pay tribute to some of the great voices of Rhythm and Blues is what make the film. James Brown’s burn down the house preacher scene, Ray Charles’ pawn shop jam, Aretha Fraklin singing R.E.SP.E.C.T in the diner, John Lee Hooker as a street musician. The movie would be great without the addition of the madcap antics of brothers Blues, the Illinois Nazis (“I hate Illinois Nazis!”), the entirety of the Chicago PD force, The National Guard, and the Good Ol' Boys…You know the movie. If you don’t, you should. It deserves the cult status it has earned and for a certain segment of us, the “We’re On a Mission From God” poster was standard décor for the dorm room.

The song itself? If you don’t know it was one of Elvis’ earliest and biggest hits, then you probably don’t know much about music. Here, John Belushi and partner Dan Aykroyd, both musical aficionados and true fans in real life, use the movies to enact their own living, breathing rock n roll fantasy while paying tribute to the King, much in the same way they did with other greats, such as Sam and Dave and Solomon Burke. A lot of people viewed the Blues Brother’s musical venture with cynical scorn: two Hollywood goofs play acting their way through a vanity project. But with the heavy weight additions of some of the aforementioned greats, a legit backing band, and a true love for Rock ‘n Roll, Soul and the Blues, the Blues Brothers output, at this far remove, seems like a lot more than shtick. And, their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, did actually reach number one.

“Jailhouse Rock” is the end scene of the movie, last in line for a lot of amazing musical numbers. While most of the movie was done in Chicago, and was, according to Aykroyd a tribute to the city itself, the finale was shot in LA. Somehow, the entire band ends up prison, thought it was only Jake and Elwood that got arrested. Joe Walsh, from the Eagles, plays the prisoner who jumps up on the table and starts the riot.  Its not the highlight of the film but it is the Blues Brothers doing what they did: down and dirty R&B that passed for the real thing, because it is.


As for the original, by Elvis—have you ever listened to the lyrics?  It’s a great rock song that features that indescribable shuffle and strum that only the King could spin, the beat that changed the sound of pop music ever after. It’s such an iconic piece of musical history, the covers of it run into the thousands (Search Spotify if you doubt me…). But honestly, its an odd song, content-wise, and I always wondered about it. According to Rolling Stone, the “…theme song for Presley's third movie was decidedly silly… kind of tongue-in-cheek goof. The King, however, sang it as straight rock & roll, overlooking the jokes in the lyrics (like the suggestion of gay romance when inmate Number 47 tells Number 3, 'You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see')..." I feel like I need to add, not that there’s anything wrong with that, and there isn’t, but, seriously:  the song has forever struck me as odd, simply for the fact that it does seem to be a strange, poorly told, and in poor taste joke, that despite his uber-cool, Elvis really didn’t get what he was singing.  Maybe that’s an indication of the times, maybe there’s noting wrong with keeping an innocent sense of what the song is. Maybe we should just focus on the sound: the clock-work rhythm, the punchy up-down guitar, the spin out drums and Scotty Moore’s quick-step riff or wailing solo. When a song is as instantly iconic and recognizable as “Jailhouse Rock”, does it really matter who sings it (movie stars), or what it really means, so long as it gets played? And really, great songs, or movies, don’t really need to make sense to be good.






Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Prison: Prisoners of Their Hairdos


Christine Lavin: Prisoners of Their Hairdos
[purchase]

My recent run of television-related posts would suggest a discussion of The Prisoner, one of the great TV shows of the 1960s, and one of the first shows designed to blow the viewers’ minds, and I still might, but while it had a theme song (with a great credit sequence), it really wasn’t a music based show.

I’ve also recently written elsewhere about Jason Isbell’s cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak,” so that’s out. As I perused my music library, I came across this song, which I hadn’t listened to in years, and which reminded me that you don’t need to be in a cell to be a prisoner.

Christine Lavin has been on the folk scene since the 1980s, and while she has had a long, successful career as a singer-songwriter, she never had the sort of national breakout that some of her contemporaries like Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman or Shawn Colvin, although she is incredibly well respected in the folk music world. Lavin writes mostly about relationships, and while she can write seriously, she is probably best known for her sense of humor. Many of her songs are laugh out loud funny. I sometimes wonder if her lack of fame stems from the fact that women folk singers are stereotypically supposed to be sad, tortured souls, and Lavin’s humor prevents her from being taken seriously. But that’s really too bad, because she has consistently written and performed great songs, not all of which are jokey.

In addition, she has long been an incredible supporter of other musicians, playing them on the radio, and working with them. I remember listening to her as the first host of WFUV’s Sunday Breakfast, playing music by artists she liked, sometimes even unreleased tracks. Even after friend (and fellow former WPRB Program Director John Platt) took over the show, Lavin would send him music to play, and she occasionally would sub for him. As much as I loved listening to John, which I don’t get to do as much since the station, in a bad move, pushed him to Sunday evening, when sports, TV, life and dinner usually take precedence (sorry!), it was fun to hear Lavin’s unique style every once in a while.

“Prisoners of Their Hairdos” is on the funny side of Lavin’s musical spectrum, and points out that some people’s coiffures are so distinctive that:

If they changed the way they combed their hair 
They'd never be recognized anywhere 
They're prisoners 

Lavin lists Crystal Gayle, Dorothy Hamill, Don King, Lyle Lovett, Gloria Steinem, Stevie Nicks Leon Redbone, Pee Wee Herman, Tom Wolfe, Pope John Paul, Ted Koppel, and Mary Travers as hairdo prisoners, and I’m sure we could think of more recent ones, since the song was released in 1991. An amateur golfer/more amateur president comes to mind…..

The song points out that ZZ Top are, similarly, prisoners of their beards, and Dolly Parton is a prisoner of her…….wigs. But, on the other hand, the B-52’s beehives, she suggests, are prisoners of the band.

There was a time where I had a great deal of hair, but time and genetics has rendered me almost bald, and now I keep my hair short, for ease of care. Typically, when I go to the barber, she asks me, “what do you want to do?” And my response is usually, “there really isn’t much you can do.” My daughter’s father-in-law (English really needs a word like machatenester or consuegro) shaves his head daily, and has tried to convince me to do the same. I’ve declined, because I don’t want to become a prisoner of my baldness.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Prison: The Midnight Special

Leadbelly: The Midnight Special

[purchase]

Coming off a lively week here last week, we now have one of the richest themes popular music has to offer. Prison is such a popular theme, I think, because it implies a yearning for freedom. Certainly, that is true of my first selection.

In choosing a version of The Midnight Special to present, I had almost 100 years of recordings to consider. Leadbelly is often credited with having written the song, but the earliest known recording is from 1923, before Leadbelly’s time. Leadbelly was the natural choice for me however for two reasons: his great performance was the first to popularize the song, and he was black. That is important, because this song is about an essential part of the black experience in America. When Leadbelly sings, “If you ever go to Houston/ You better act right…”, he goes on to describe behavior that only landed his narrator in jail because of the color of his skin. Today, a black teenager can be shot for reaching into his pocket for a bag of Skittles, so The Midnight Special is, sadly, still relevant. Credence Clearwater Revival did a brilliant cover of the song that made it a rock classic, but some of the resonance of the lyric could not help but be lost because the song could not have been about their experience.

The Midnight Special in the title is a train that passes by the prison where the narrator is living. It is an interesting symbol for freedom, since a train is, in a sense, a prisoner of its tracks, able to go only where they take it. Indeed, if a prisoner was somehow able to get to the tracks and jump a freight train in the night, the police would begin their search in the places the train goes, making the escapee easier to catch. But trains can also remind the listener of the Underground Railroad, so they are a powerful symbol of freedom. The writer of the song, however, probably wasn’t thinking that deeply. He just saw a light that belonged to something that had the power to take him away from his situation, even if only for a while.