Prison Songs
August 27, 2006 11:21 AM   Subscribe

That's the Sound of the Man Working on the Chain Gang Among all genres of American folk music, prison songs may be the most viscerally compelling. They evolved from plantation songs and field hollers of slaves in the American South before the civil war (whose origins can in turn be traced to patterns found in the music of West Africa) but their tone and content is quite different. Limitless in length, bitter and pained, offering little hope of freedom or redemption, these songs were first heard during Reconstruction. Harsh and unevenly enforced laws incarcerated legions of black American men, consigning them to long sentences of labor for minor offenses like insult, fistfighting, and shoplifting. To shore up a tanking Southern economy, prisons leased convict labor to plantation owners as a low-cost replacement for slave labor. When reform efforts brought that to an end, state governments became the contractors. Sweetheart deals awarded lucrative contracts to prisons to provide labor for rebuilding the railroads and highways of the war-destroyed South. Slavery in all but name, these work conditions gave rise to a body of music that is one of the most significant antecedents of the blues. In hundreds of variants, cadenced to axe-fall, hoe stroke, or the drop of a maul, the songs set a working pace a man could sustain from dawn to dusk, while remaining fast enough to satisfy an armed 'Captain' on horseback.
posted by Miko (33 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
[this is good]
Brilliant post Miko. I've always liked the subtle acts of rebellion like these that allow people to keep some of their dignity and sense of self and community in the face of unrelenting hardship.
posted by Zack_Replica at 11:32 AM on August 27, 2006

Wow. Well done. I look forward to investigating these.
posted by languagehat at 11:35 AM on August 27, 2006

I learned so much researching this post that I could hardly confine it to a paragraph. It'd be easy to branch out to a number of related topics (and eventually, I will). But I certainly gained a deeper understanding of the role of incarceration in American racial history, and am now far more aware of the way that prisons functioned as musical incubators. I agree with ZackR -- I'm most moved by examples of the human spirit engaged in creation even under extreme duress.

And so much music was clearly influenced by what happened in prisons during both work and non-work times. Son House and Ledbelly were both incarcerated under systems like those described above. The more tracks you listen to, the more you can hear some of the beginnings of blues, doo-wop, soul, and jazz. Check out this track, recorded in 1939, and tell me you don't hear the model for "Walking to New Orleans," written in 1960 by Bobby Charles.
posted by Miko at 11:49 AM on August 27, 2006

Not to play down the suffering behind these songs, but knowing a few makes summer yardwork go by much more pleasantly.

One album of these I have and can recommend is Deep River of Song: Big Brazos.
posted by sudasana at 11:59 AM on August 27, 2006

"Wipin' it off here, Boss!"

"Okay, wipe it off there, Koko."
posted by sourwookie at 12:14 PM on August 27, 2006

Damn this is good.

Years ago I used to do a lecture about the evolution of rock n roll from African sources, through slave songs and Appalachian folk music, through country and then electrified blues, to Elvis Presley. I lost the mix tape I used at some point and never got around to replacing it. This post will gt me off my ass to return that lecture to the line up!
posted by LarryC at 12:30 PM on August 27, 2006

Thanks a bunch, real good post.
posted by kjell at 12:32 PM on August 27, 2006

I've gotten a couple of albums of recordings of these off of emusic. One of them is a Smithsonian Folkways recording from several decades ago called "Negro Prison Camp Worksongs." The other is something more contemporary from Angola Prison. Both are amazing.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:41 PM on August 27, 2006

[This is good great!]
posted by ruwan at 12:47 PM on August 27, 2006

Double post.

just joshin'. amazing work! this is the kind of post that got me hooked on mefi.
posted by nevercalm at 12:56 PM on August 27, 2006

Weird - just a couple of days acquired this CD, and it's currently in my queue. Are you, like, psychic, or something, Miko?

Great post!
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:20 PM on August 27, 2006


(other big category of great folk work songs: sea shanties)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:44 PM on August 27, 2006

[this is good]
posted by killdevil at 2:04 PM on August 27, 2006

Awesome post.
posted by Bageena at 2:28 PM on August 27, 2006

Excellent post. Thank you very much.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 3:13 PM on August 27, 2006

Amazing post.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 3:48 PM on August 27, 2006

Chanteys...hmmm, to get a little Meta here, maybe that'd be a good post for the 19th -- Talk Like a Pirate Day? Oh, and Jodies are inspiring "work songs" of a sort, in their way...
posted by pax digita at 4:08 PM on August 27, 2006

Wonderful post! My pick of the month!
posted by .kobayashi. at 4:43 PM on August 27, 2006

That's the sound of the slaves working on the chain gang - a - ang.

What has changed? One in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in a state or federal prison.
posted by caddis at 5:16 PM on August 27, 2006

To echo Caddis, "prison industry" is flourishing in America today, especially in the for-profit private sector prisons that are themselves "godsends" for played-out rural economies. Just think, if ghetto boyz quit selling crack a bunch of ignorant crackers might lose a little weight!

(Not that all rural white folk are like that, as of course not all urban young black men sell crack, but if nobody fit them we wouldn't have these stereotypes.)
posted by davy at 5:29 PM on August 27, 2006

Superb, Miko!! Thank you for all the work on this amazing and very rich post. (And I am barely through y2karl's links from the other day!)
posted by madamjujujive at 5:31 PM on August 27, 2006

What has changed? One in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in a state or federal prison.

Caddis, thanks. I should add that part of the journey of researching this topic led me to the heightened awareness of what our present prison system grew from.

I've grown up hearing black activists say that the modern-day prison system was 'an extension of slavery'. What I know now is that that statement is in no way hyperbolic rhetoric - it's demonstrably true.

The system of incarceration the US has now, and its uneven impact on the black community, can be traced to the southern states' attempt at solving the post-Reconstruction problem of underemployed former slaves, and the US economy 's failure to absorb them into paying jobs. Our present prison system can still be seen as a hiding place for economic and social failures with regard to race, in many ways.
posted by Miko at 5:59 PM on August 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Perhaps this should be the basis of reparations. Instead of worrying about the pre-Civil War era, how about doing something to men who may still be alive today (or their immediate descendants). There must be a great many men are alive today that were forced into this system of slavery, assuming this stretched into the 50's. Imprisoned on trumped up charges, forced into labor for less than a fair wage. How different would the south look today if the railroads, highways and bridges had been built for a fair wage, instead of prison gangs? We paid the Japanese who we sent to Hart Mountain, and other camps.
posted by humanfont at 6:54 PM on August 27, 2006

I won't argue that incarceration has a disproportionate impact to blacks, but does that really justify comparisons with slavery?

But yeah, the music links are pretty good.
posted by pax digita at 7:41 PM on August 27, 2006

Are you kidding, pax? Have you ever taken a good look at the prison stats? It's pretty obvious that prisons are a for-profit industry in the USA, and blacks are its natural resource.

It's really quite sickening.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:42 PM on August 27, 2006

What caused this form of music to die out? Are prison songs still being sung?

Great post - It reminded me to listen again to Negro Work Songs from the Alan Lomax Collection.
posted by Ritchie at 11:10 PM on August 27, 2006

Are prison songs still being sung?

Perhaps a topic for another post sometime. The short answer is yes.

This type of song was closely related to chain gang work. Since (in most cases) hard labor on the chain gang is no longer a form of punishment, work songs died out with the work. Same way that sea chanties and logging songs have died out with changes in technology.

However, there's another body of music from prisons that was sung outside of work time. John and Ruby Lomax collected a lot of those songs, too, and you can hear them on the American Memory site. That tradition absolutely does continue today, though I don't know much about it. Most songs composed in prison today fall into the comtemporary folk genre known as 'rap'. There are folklorists working on collecting it; it's a subset of the prison folklore that also includes recipes, pranks, arts, jokes, stories, legends, community structures and traditions.
posted by Miko at 7:43 AM on August 28, 2006

Err, none of the files work for me. What's happened.

Good post though (even if half the links are dead!).
posted by lalochezia at 10:12 AM on August 28, 2006

Sorry; the links to specific song files appear to be temporary at LOC.
posted by Miko at 11:32 AM on August 28, 2006

Here were the song titles I chose to highlight, so you can still listen to them despite the problem of expired links.

From the Florida Folklife Collection:
Sally Went to Mobile

From Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax Southern States Trip
We Don't Have No Payday Here
I Left My Woman in the Back Door Cryin'
Oh Capn Cain' Read
Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad

I also linked to "Field Hollers" and "Work Songs" from the Southern Mosaic audio index, sorted by song type.

But these were just picks, favorites of mine. There is much, much more great stuff in the LoC. Sorry about the link problem; now I know you can't link to a page of search results longer than one day at that site.
posted by Miko at 7:16 PM on August 28, 2006

And the axe-fall, hoe-stroke links were photos of the work from the same collections.
posted by Miko at 7:16 PM on August 28, 2006

Fantastic post Miko.
posted by Just Ask, Just Tell at 5:31 PM on August 29, 2006

This is such a great post. I don't know how I missed it before. Thanks so much.
posted by OmieWise at 7:46 AM on August 30, 2006

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