From the first moment, this set made my hair stand on end. This is music I am not meant to hear. In a just world, it would not have been made. But the world is wrong; at least its music can be right.
Parchman Farm was and is a notorious penitentiary in Mississippi. Created by the state for profit, and established along the lines of a pre-Civil War plantation, it lasted well into the 20th century as a living relic of African American slave labor. In 1933, when Alan Lomax first visited the prison as a teenaged assistant to his folklorist father John Lomax, the Emancipation Proclamation was just setting over the historical horizon — at 70 years old, it was well in living memory. Desegregation was still half again as far off into the future, though it surely must have felt much further away, if attainable at all.
John Lomax himself was but a baby step removed from the era of slavery — a white southerner born in 1867, only two years past Juneteenth, and raised on a farm in eastern Texas, he knew former slaves and was versed in the rural culture that had kept them. He left the farm to educate himself, and eventually found his way to Harvard for studies with George Kittredge — student and successor to the great Victorian folklorist Francis James Child, and (after Child’s death) co-editor of the Child Ballads.
“This collision of the Harvard folklorist with the southern farm boy produced not African American studies, at first, but cowboy poetry.”
This collision of the Harvard folklorist with the southern farm boy produced not African American studies, at first, but cowboy poetry. It’s hardly surprising that in 1910 Kittredge encouraged Lomax to chronicle white culture in his native south — it must have seemed the logical extension of work done by Child and Kittredge in the Anglo-Scots tradition — but how disappointing that John Lomax didn’t set to work right away documenting the African American tradition, fast changing with the Great Migration away from the rural south.
It wasn’t until 1933, then — after the movement north of more than a million and a half African Americans, and the shocks to the national system of a Great War and a Great Depression — that the elder Lomax found himself in a position to turn his attention fully to African American sources. As if to make up for lost time, or perhaps in an effort to continue and bring his work into line with the scholarship of Child and Kittredge, he sought out what he thought of as informants frozen in time. In a taped interview from October 1933, included on the CD collection Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings, 1933 (West Virginia University Press, 2012), he explained what brought him to Parchman:
"My son and I conceived the idea this summer that the best way to get real Negro singing in the Negro idiom and the music also in Negro idiom was to find the Negro who had had the least contact with the whites. And so we loaded up a recording instrument in our Ford car and visited remote lumber camps; great cotton plantations where the Negroes were in proportion to the whites in 25 or 100 to one; and certain prison camps in four of the southern states. We were right in our theory I think because — especially in the prison camps — we found the Negroes completely isolated from the whites. They lived in separate dormitories, they ate together, they had no contacts with the whites whatever except with their guards and then in purely official relations. So the songs that these men sang for us, many of the men having been in the penitentiary all the way from 10 to 50 years, we think were as largely as possible removed from the influence of white speech and white singing."
“By 1933 Parchman Farm was an artificial tradition, a Disney-like fantasy of rural slavery maintained by the power of a whites-only state authority.”
Regardless of his motivations, I find it painful that John Lomax found a way to put segregation to cultural use. A document of the "purity" of a tradition defined by race is also a document of racial purity as an ideology. And I hear in John Lomax’s statement strong echoes of the colonial idea of the "primitive" non-white culture standing outside time and history, as opposed to the ever-developing European one. The prison farm suited John Lomax’s purposes because it was constructed to suspend a moment in history. By 1933 Parchman Farm was an artificial tradition, a Disney-like fantasy of rural slavery maintained by the power of a whites-only state authority. Documenting it as representative of the "real" African American idiom was a complementary fantasy, a legitimization of its economic and race relations as "real". It’s no wonder the Lomaxes were given such remarkable access by the prison authorities.
Despite these layers of fantasy, for those imprisoned the situation was all too real, however. In LP liner notes to his later recordings made at Parchman, Alan Lomax described what he had witnessed there:
"In the southern penitentiary system, where the object was to get the most out of the land, the labor force was driven hard. The men rose in the black hours of morning and ran all the way to the field, sometimes a distance of several miles, with their guards galloping along behind them on horseback. The swiftest workers headed each gang and others were compelled to keep pace with him. Anyone who did not keep up or who rebelled was subject to severe punishment. I saw men who had worked so long and hard that their feet had turned into masses of pulpy bones. I heard everywhere of men working till they dropped dead or burnt out with sunstroke... ‘Knocking a joe’ or self-mutilation was one way out. The sight of a one-legged or one-armed man who had chopped his own foot or hand off with an axe was a common one."
The paragraph that follows this one was omitted by the Alan Lomax Archive from the version of these notes included in the gorgeous new Dust-to-Digital edition of Alan Lomax’s complete Parchman recordings (including nearly a dozen never before available) — but it speaks to problems raised by John Lomax’s original choice of documenting prisons as cultural institutions:
"Every Southern Negro knew, at least by hearsay, what going down the river (going to the pen) was like, and it was in good part the shadow of this penal system which kept the rural Negro in a state of outward subservience over all the years since Reconstruction." (Negro Prison Songs: Mississippi State Penitentiary, Tradition TLP 1020)
“Segregation as law is now nearly as far in the past as slavery was when John Lomax first chose Parchman to document. And yet, Parchman exists.”
Was disseminating the sounds of a prison farm participating in casting that shadow, even extending it through technology...? The songs in this collection represent the horrors of slavery not only by preserved tradition — as John Lomax intended — but in the active present for the men who sang them, as Alan Lomax testified.
Certainly these recordings reached some who put the information in them to progressive use; the folk revival and the civil rights movement were entwined in the 1950s and early '60s. In 1961, several hundred of the Freedom Riders who travelled to Mississippi to agitate against segregation ended up themselves imprisoned at Parchman, including now-Congressman John Lewis. There they sang civil rights anthems — not as work songs, in the "real" tradition Lomax sought in 1933 — but as protest. The prison authorities punished them for it, removing necessities including clothing to try and get them to stop.
That seems like a world apart from the Parchman Farm documented by the Lomaxes. Yet Alan Lomax’s last batch of recordings made there — found on Disc Two of the Dust-to-Digital set — were recorded only two years earlier, in 1959. By then, as Alan Lomax’s companion Shirley Collins described it (and scholar Bruce Jackson quotes in new liner notes written for this release), "The music had lost something of its grandeur and despair... perhaps it was that the younger prisoners didn’t want to keep up the old way of singing and the old songs." Here again we see the mismatch of a practicing folklorist — and one of the greatest, in my own pantheon — with institutional injustice. In a living hell like Parchman, there is no reason to keep the old ways alive.
Segregation as law is now nearly as far in the past as slavery was when John Lomax first chose Parchman to document. And yet, Parchman exists. The profitable isolation of its prisoners exists. (In 2010, Parchman pioneered an electronic system for blocking inmate cell phones, forcing them to rely on the landline monopoly granted to Global Tel*Link Corporation.) And racism exists. The music preserved by this remarkable set is indisputably valuable. But the system that made it possible must still be crushed.
[illustration: Rep John Lewis tweet from July this year, marking the anniversary of his 1961 imprisonment at Parchman]