It features a chat about Journeys to the Heart of the Blues, from Joe Louis Walker, Bruce Katz and Giles Robson between Gary Burnett and podcast producer, Gemma Burnett, followed by an interview with Joe Louis Walker.
“The blues is consistent, it’s constant, you know? It constantly speaks to the harder side of life.”
Rhiannon Giddens was recently described as one of the 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century and according to the New York Times “her voice is a perpetually soulful marvel.” She’s an historian, musical social activist, former opera singer, top-notch banjo player, fiddle player, actress, and accomplished song writer. Her recent solo album, Freedom Highway and her collaborative project, Songs of Our Native Daughters, with Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah bring to centre stage the history of black women in the United States, their suffering and resilience.
Along with Italian pianist and percussionist, Francesco Turrisi, she’s just completed a tour of Ireland. Turrisi, dubbed rightly a “musical alchemist,” is an highly skilled musician who has the deepest knowledge of the history of his music imaginable and is an accomplished raconteur, able to utterly engage his audience between songs.
They played a sold-out Black Box in Belfast, treating the delighted crowd to a feast of eclectic music, charged a times with intense emotion and laced at others with humour.
Here are 7 things we learned from their performance of at the Black Box (actually it could have been 26 things, given the lessons we got during the gig on music history, frame drums, banjos, southern Italian trance dancing and more besides).
1. Rhiannon Giddens is a fabulous singer. Actually, we knew that beforehand, but to hear her live was something else. She’s a trained opera singer, so the control, tone and dynamics are all there. But the timbre, the emotion and the connection she makes with her audience when she sings are all utterly mesmerizing. As for the ability to sing flawlessly in a Puglian dialect…
2. Who knew the history of the frame drum could be so interesting? It dates back to the 7th century BC and there are a huge variety from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, most of which Francesco Turrisi had with him on stage. Well, quite a few anyway. Turrisi’s musical history lessons were never less than fascinating and when he pulled off that tambourine solo, he had us in the palm of his hand. Oh, and did I mention the Iranian Sufi drum which Francesco tuned by means of a bicycle pump?
3. The one string piano is a thing. There it was, right on the stage, the Una Corda, designed by David Klavins, the most unusual piano I’ve ever seen. The hammers hit one string, as opposed to three on a regular piano and it’s only got five, not seven octaves, if you must know. The important thing is that Francesco Turrisi could play that thing. Perhaps the most unexpected turn in the concert was when he sat with his back to us and started to play some 16th century Italian keyboard music, which eventually began to give way to jazzy syncopation. Quite wonderful.
4. Most people think of the banjo as a white person’s country music instrument. Rhiannon Giddens is on a mission to ensure we understand its roots in West Africa and then as an instrument of black slaves. It was eventually popularized in the middle of the nineteenth century throughout the United States and Europe by white performers. Giddens played her nineteenth century replica 5-string minstrel banjo with consummate skill, especially in the contra dance tunes she played in duet with Turrisi on piano accordion. The accuracy of the fast in-unison passages in these were jaw-dropping.
5. Ms Giddens’s song-writing is steeped in the infamous history of African Americans, where she distils the whole horror to an individual’s or family’s experience. The performance of the Purchaser’s Option (from her album Freedom Highway), which tells the story of a young black slave and her baby is horrifyingly effective, and but we heard the strength and resilience of the woman despite the horror as Rhiannon Giddens sang over and over,
You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul.
6. Despite the intensity of her historical quest and her dismay at the current state of affairs in the United States and elsewhere, Rhiannon Giddens remains incredibly positive. “We need to focus on how beautiful we can be,” on our potential for good, she told us.
7. Towards the end of a remarkable evening of the most eclectic musical elements you could imagine, Rhiannon Giddens sang an old spiritual “I’m Going to Tell God All of my Troubles When I Get Home,” with a simple piano accompaniment. You could have heard a pin drop in the packed Black Box. “When you think the world’s gone crazy, He will see you through…” It was exquisite. And an appropriate hymn to take back into life.
We don’t normally expect prisons to play a role in the history of music. But with the blues, it’s not just drinkers, ramblers and vagrants who take a starring role, but also convicts. The blues grew up not only in plantations but in prisons.
Songs from the 1920s onward complain about the privations of life in prison, loneliness, lost love and injustice. Because under Jim Crow, African Americans were abominably treated by a justice system that might better be called an injustice system. Consider, for example, the convict leasing which took hold in Mississippi towards the end of the nineteenth century and went on for decades. Black people convicted by the law were leased to farmers and businessmen and literally worked to death. They were savagely beaten, made to work seemingly endless workdays and treated with murderous neglect. “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. Many of the convicts had fallen foul of local ordinances for minor infractions, were simply not able to pay the hefty fines levied, and then fell foul of well-off whites who paid their fines and forced them into indentured slavery characterized by back-breaking and life-threatening labour. “The end result was a stream of back bodies to the county chain gangs and local plantations” (Oshinsky).
African Americans were also worked in unbearable conditions in Mississippi’s penitentiary, Parchman, which sprawled over 20,000 acres of rich Delta farmland. Prisoners were put to work as if they were slaves, with men working until they dropped dead or burnt out with sunstroke. They worked from dawn to dusk in the brutal heat, surviving on worm-infested food, kept at it by the brutal application of the “Black Annie,” a heavy leather strap. Bluesman Willie Dixon, who was born in 1915 was once sentenced to 30 days for vagrancy on the Harvey Allen County Farm. He recalls the use of the Black Annie:
“They’d haul us out there to work and put us on a great big ditch…We were on top cutting and all of a sudden I hear somebody screaming, “Oh Lawdy! Oh, Lawdy, captain please stop doing it…I run over there peepin’. Boy, they’ve got five guys on this one guy…and this guy – they called him Captain Crush – has got a strap about eight inches wide. It’s leather, about five or six inches long, a handle on it about two feet long and holes in the end of this strap about as big as a quarter. They called it the Black Annie…Every time he hits this guy, flesh and blood actually come off this cat…He was out and they were still beating him.”
Dixon goes on to relate how, for being caught watching this, he too was beaten with the strap round the head, resulting in deafness for the next four months. He was thirteen at the time.
But in these prison-farms, remarkably, music thrived – mostly as a survival mechanism. When father and son musicologist team, John and Alan Lomax embarked on their famous blues-collecting road trip in 1933, they discovered that their most productive visits were to penitentiaries. They described finding here a “black Homer”, an aging black prisoner called “Iron Head”, with a songbook that would fill 500 pages if written down. In Louisiana’s Angola, They also found Huddie Ledbetter, later to be known as Leadbelly.
Possibly Leadbelly’s most famous song is Midnight Special, covered by Creedance Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison and many others. The Midnight Special was a train whose headlights lit up Ledbetter’s cell. The song speaks of “Nothing in the pan,” in other words nothing to eat, and if you were to “say a thing about it, you’d have trouble with the man.” It highlights the minor infractions that could put you away in prison – “if you ever go the Houston, boy you’d better walk right… Benson Crocker will arrest you, Jimmy Boone will take you down.” Blacks often did not have to commit any crime, in order to be arrested and subsequently jailed. A white person was completely at liberty to stop and question a black stranger in the neighbourhood, and if they did not have a local white person to vouch for them, then the police could be called upon to make an arrest.
As you listen to blues songs the Lomaxes recorded at Parchman (check out “Negro Prison Blues and Songs, Recorded Live by Alan Lomax”) – prisoners recounting personal tragedies, injustices and the ever-present hope of pardon and freedom, you get an insight into the hardship and injustice that Parchman and other penitentiaries represented.
To be sure, many incarcerated in Parchman had committed very violent crimes. But factors of extreme poverty, lack of education and racist oppression need to be reckoned with. Not only did they contribute to a climate of violence, they increased the conviction rate, lengthened sentences and lessened chances for pardon or parole.
Other famous blues convicts include Son House and Bukka White, second cousin to B.B. King. In his Parchman Farm Blues, Bukka sings of the dawn to dusk work regime:
Go to work in the mornin’ just at the dawn of day And at the settin’ of the sun that is when your work is done.
No wonder he also wrote Fixin’ to Die blues:
Now, I believe I’m fixin’ to die, yeah
I know I was born to die
But I hate to leave my children around cryin’
(Check out the Postscript after the songs)
Here’s our selection of prison blues songs.
Furry Lewis, Judge Harsh, 1928
It’s an appeal from an innocent man for a light sentence:
They ‘rest me for murder, I ain’t harmed a man
‘Rest me for murder, I ain’t harmed a man
Women hollerin’ murderer, Lord I ain’t raised my hand
I ain’t got nobody to get me out on bond
I ain’t got nobody to get me out on bond
I would not mind but I ain’t done nothing wrong
Blind Lemon Jefferson, Prison Cell Blues, 1928
The hopelessness of the convicted prisoner:
I asked the government to knock some days off my time
Well, the way I’m treated, I’m about to lose my mind
I wrote to the governor, please turn me a-loose
Since I don’t get no answer, I know it ain’t no use
Leroy Carr, Prison Bound Blues, 1929
Early one mornin’, the blues came falling down
Early one mornin’, the blues came falling down
All locked up in jail, and prison boun’.
Peg Leg Howell, Ball and Chain Blues, 1929
Howell served time in Georgia prison camps for bootlegging offenses. He knew
what it was like to endure physical labour for the state as a prisoner.
They arrested me, carried me ‘fore the judge
They arrested me, they carried me ‘fore the judge
Said, the judge wouldn’t allow me to say a mumbling word
I’ve always been a poor boy, never had no job…
And the next day, carried the poor boy away
The next day, they carried that poor boy away
Say, the next day, I laid in ball and chains
Take these stripes off my back, chains from ’round my leg
Stripes off my back, chains from ’round my leg
This ball and chain about to kill me dead.
The Memphis Sheiks, He’s In the Jailhouse Now, 1930.
Made famous recently by featuring in the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou by The Soggy Bottom Boys. This unusually cheerful jail song was originally found in vaudeville performances from the early 20th century, usually credited to Jimmie Rodgers. The final verse of the song is about the singer taking a girl named Susie out on the town and the two winding up in jail together.
I went out last Tuesday, Met a gal named Susie…
We started to spend my money, Then she started to call me honey
We took in every cabaret in town
We’re in the jailhouse now
We’re in the jailhouse now
I told the judge right to his face
We didn’t like to see this place
We’re in the jailhouse now.
Bukka White, Parchman Farm Blues, 1940
White was born in Mississippi, but moved to Memphis and Chicago to record. He ran into trouble when he and a friend were “ambushed” by a man along a highway, according to White. He shot the man in the thigh in self-defence. While awaiting trial, he skipped bail and went to Chicago, where he recorded two songs before being apprehended. He was sent back to Mississippi to do a three-year stretch at Parchman Farm. He recorded two numbers for the Lomaxes at Parchman Farm in 1939. His Parchman Farm Blues speaks of the long days of back-breaking labour:
We go to work in the mo’nin
Just a-dawn of day
We go to work in the mo’nin
Just a-dawn of day
Just at the settin’ of the sun
That’s when da work is done, yeah
Leadbelly, Midnight Special, 1934
Leadbelly recorded a version of the song at Angola Prison for the Lomaxes. They said that the Midnight Special was a train from Houston, shining its light into a cell in the Sugar Land Prison, where the light of the train is the light of salvation, which could take them out of prison. Author Carl Sandburg’s view, however, was that the singer would rather be run over by a train than spend more time in jail.
Well, you wake up in the mornin’, you hear the work bell ring,
And they march you to the table to see the same old thing.
Ain’t no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan.
But you better not complain, boy, you get in trouble with the man.
Big Maceo, County Jail Blues, 1941
Written by Alfred Fields, the song was also recorded by Eric Clapton in 1975.
So take these stripes from around me, chains from around my neck
These stripes from around me, and these chains from around my neck
Well, these stripes don’t hurt me, but these chains oughta give me death
Walter “Tangle Eye” Jackson, Tangle Eye Blues, 1947
One of many recordings made in late 1947 at Parchman by Alan Lomax, the song speaks of the regret of the incarcerated prisoner.
Well I wonder will I ever get back home?
Well it must have been the devil that pulled me here
more down and out
Oh Lord… if I ever get back home, I’ll never do wrong
If I can just make it home I won’t do wrong no more
Lighnin’ Hopkins, Jail House Blues, 1961
Originally written by Clarence Williams and Bessie Smith in 1923, and recorded also by Ella Fitzgerald in 1963, Hopkins’s version is telling, in that he had been sent to Houston County Prison Farm in the mid-1930s – for which offense we don’t know.
Hey mister jailer, will you please sir bring me the key
I just want you to open the door, cause this ain’t no place for me
Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison, 1955
Recorded first on his debut album, Cash performed the song at Folsom Prison itself on January 13, 1968. It contains the classic lines, which were roundly cheered by the inmates:
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die…
Far from Folsom Prison
That’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away
Bob Dylan, Hurricane, 1976
Co-written with Jacques Levy, the song concerns the imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who, it alleged, was falsely tried and convicted, a victim of racism. In 1985 Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin, ruled that Carter had not received a fair trial and overturned the conviction, resulting in Carter’s release and the granting of a writ of habeas corpus to Carter, commenting that the prosecution had been “based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.”
Sam Cooke, Chain Gang, 1960
Cooke’s incongruously upbeat 1960 hit “Chain Gang” was inspired by his encounter with a prison chain gang while out on tour. These prisoners had been out build a highway, and the only thing keeping them in good spirits was the hope that one day they’d be free from their shackles.
All day long they work so hard
Till the sun is goin’ down
Working on the highways and byways
And wearing, wearing a frown
You hear them moanin’ their lives away
Then you hear somebody sa-ay
That’s the sound of the men working on the chain ga-a-ang
That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang
The inequity of the justice system in the United States continues to this day, with one in every three black male babies born in this century expected to be incarcerated. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with a prison population that has grown from 300,000 to over 2 million today, and one in every 15 people in the country expected to go to jail or prison. Its rate of incarceration is four to eight times higher than those in other liberal democracies, including Canada, England, and Germany.
Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow says that “more African American adults are under correctional control today…than were enslaved in 1850.” The United States now imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. Alexander goes on to note, shockingly, that “young black men today may be just as likely to suffer discrimination in employment, housing, public benefits and jury service as a black man in the Jim Crow era.”
Black rapper Meek Mills tells of his experience as a black man caught in a justice system in need of reform: “Like many who are currently incarcerated, I was the victim of a miscarriage of justice — carried out by an untruthful officer, as determined by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, and an unfair judge.” You can read details of his case here.
Mills speaks of the disproportionate number of men and women of colour in prison and contends that “the system causes a vicious cycle, feeding upon itself — sons and daughters grow up with their parents in and out of prison, and then become far more likely to become tied up in the arrest-jail-probation cycle. This is bad for families and our society as a whole.”
John Pfaff, in his recent Locked In, observes that “blacks are systematically denied access to the more successful paths to economic stability,” and therefore “face systematically greater pressure to turn to other alternatives.” He goes on to note that young men without a way out of poverty turn to gangs, and gangs always turn to violence. The way out of the cycle of violence and incarceration that America has got itself into in not straightforward, but surely has a lot to do with the need to tackle poverty, with the fact that prosecutors are elected and need to be market themselves as “tough on crime,” with the lack of any sensible gun control policy, and with the need to examine drug policy.
Michelle Alexander concludes her book by reminding her readers of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King’s appeal for a “radical restructuring of our society,” and urges a radical restructuring of America’s approach to racial justice advocacy as well.
James Baldwin, in a letter written in 1962 to his nephew, tells him that, “you were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity…that you were a worthless human being.” The sad history of incarceration in the United States is achingly reflected in the prison blues songs.
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1962 Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, David M. Oshinksy, 1996 The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, 2010 Race, Crime and Punishment, The Aspen Institute, 2011 Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, 2015 Locked In, The True Causes of Mass Incarceration, John F Pfaff, 2017