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Parchman Prison Prayer - Some Mississippi Sunday Morning
“In the darkest region of the political field the condemned man represents the symmetrical, inverted figure of the king.”
― Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
There is no place hotter in summer than the Mississippi Delta. It is so hot it is a classical myth where the dust is fine and thin and the air as still as the end. Located in the unincorporated community of Parchman is the Mississippi State Penitentiary. It is in the northernmost part of Sunflower County, 37 miles north of the Indianola, the County Seat and birthplace of Albert King, and 8 miles south of Tutwiler, where, in 1903, W.C. Handy sat in the train station where he heard a man playing slide guitar with a knife and singing “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.” Handy later published an adaptation of this song as “Yellow Dog Blues.”
Parchman Prison is located within spitting distance from Money, Mississippi where a young black man Emmett Till was infamously tortured and lynched in 1955. Also, it is just down the road from Clarksdale near where Muddy Waters was raised, where Sam Cooke and Ike Turner were born, where Bessie Smith died, and where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads (reputed to be where Highway 49 crosses Highway 61), between Helena, Arkansas and Clarksdale. Why mention these dying delta towns? Because this region of the country has been the pilgrimage site of amateur and professional folk historians seeking the Holy Grail of American Music: the blues and its origins.
Parchman was founded in 1901 and is Mississippi’s only maximum security prison. It is the prison housing Mississippi’s death chamber. In the 1930s and ‘40s, John and Ruby Lomax journeyed throughout the South recording prisoners in situ singing as part of Roosevelt's Work Progress Administration for which Lomax was in charge of the folklife section of the Federal Writers Project. Recorded were hollers, work songs, blues, and gospel selections. A healthy number of these recordings made at Parchman Prison may be found in the Dust to Digital release Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings (1947–1959), released in 2014.
Seventy years after the Lomax visits, music producer, Ian Brennan traveled to Parchman Prison to again record the prisoners incarcerated there. After three years of logistical and bureaucratic challenges, Brennan was notified only days before he could come, on a Sunday, to record the prisoners. Legal and extralegal restrictions prevented any videos or photographs. The only evidence was the sounds captured just as they were 70 years prior.
The results include 15 selections ranging from a cappella solo performance like the Kirk Talley Spiritual “Step Into The Water” to the disembodied basso voice repeating “Solve My Need” from out of a reverberation cave to the rousing final performance of “Lay My Burden Down.” Lee Williams’ “If I Couldn’t Say One Word, I'll Just Wave My Hand” was played as an ensemble piece, rustic and plain. The most arresting performance was a duet presented a cappella by two inmates of “Locked Down, Mama Prays for Me,” one inmate singing the hymn, “Ride This Train” with the second, witnessing in an impassioned soliloquy of regret, loss, and redemption.
The Mississippi Delta defies natural science by the slowing of time. Listening to these songs, one could have expected to hear the same 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. Only the tunes sung would change from one decade to the next. The same dust that choked convicted murderer Eddie “Son” House in 1928 chokes the inmates on this disc. This recording is meant to sober and steel us from the complacency of our ease.