Inmates at this bucolic but brutal prison have long been singing the blues to sustain themselves, and a new compilation of gospel songs continues the legacy
In 1940, the Mississippi singer Bukka White released the song Parchman Farm Blues as a testament of the two years he spent in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a notorious prison-labour work farm also known as Parchman Farm – and the site of some of the most remarkable music in American history.
While serving a sentence for shooting a man in the leg, the singer recorded a few songs for the white musicologist John Lomax, but it wasn’t until he was out that he wrote and recorded Parchman Farm Blues: a warning to stay off the farm, a lament of the long work day and a cry for deliverance. The song still resonates, demonstrating the chilling, natural power of delta blues, the profound isolation experienced by inmates, the harshness of prison labour camps, and the deep, almost visceral need to let song sustain you; to let the voice carry you out into the open, to freedom.
Singing through the turmoil was not just common but routine at Parchman, whether inmates were musicians or not. In 1961, Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who fought segregation on public transport, sang freedom songs throughout a cruel, wrongful imprisonment. Lomax’s many recordings of Parchman prisoners featured work songs and field hollers, performed as the prisoners dug up ground. One 1947 song is a rendition of the folk song about John Henry, in which a freedman turned steel driver outperforms a drilling machine before dying of exhaustion. “He died with a hammer in his hand,” they sing between swings. It feels crushingly apt; there was an understanding that being Black could qualify as a crime. In the book The Land Where the Blues Began, John’s son Alan, also a distinguished musicologist, wrote: “Every delta black knew he could easily find himself on the wrong side of that fence.”
The US prison is arguably the modern plantation. The 13th amendment of the constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude – except as punishment for a crime, a detail that has been leveraged ever since to the point where today, most incarcerated people are Black: 38% of the US prison population, while only 12% of US residents are Black. Ava DuVernay, whose documentary, 13th, lays out the path from slavery to the prison-industrial complex, said in 2016: “There is a really clean clear line of the black body being used for profit and for politics.”
Nowhere is this truer than Parchman Farm, which today has beds for nearly 5,000 inmate workers, many of whom are continuing its remarkable musical legacy. The producer Ian Brennan wanted to give them the opportunity to be heard. “It’s mathematical. It’s not philosophical. It shouldn’t be politicised,” Brennan says. “Mississippi has the highest poverty, the second highest rate of incarceration in the US, and African Americans are incarcerated at least five times the rate of white people. That inequity has no place in even a semblance of a democracy. That’s my motivation.” In February, he travelled to Parchman Farm to record a Sunday gospel service with the blessing of the prison chaplains, which was released last week as Some Mississippi Sunday Morning.
Brennan has been recording for nearly 40 years, with much of his work documenting underrepresented people and places. In 2011, he won a Grammy for his work in the Sahara on Tinariwen’s album Tassili, and he was nominated for another for 2015’s Zomba Prison Project in Malawi. After three and a half years (a wait exacerbated by the pandemic), Brennan was finally granted access to the Mississippi State Penitentiary with a week’s notice – in part, because of pressure applied by lawsuits filed by the rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, on behalf of the inmates, citing inhumane living conditions.
Buildings on Parchman Farm. Photograph: Courtesy of Glitterbeat Records
In a special service convened for the recording which gathered singers from several different services held at the prison on Sundays, men took turns performing spirituals, first a cappella, then with piano, drums, and even electric instruments. Slowly, over the course of the service, they coalesce into one congregation.
Mississippi, as Brennan reiterates in conversation, is a place with a loaded history, coursing with a rich musical lineage and marred by a legacy of racist violence. “If you believe in power points geographically, in the universe, it’s pretty incredible, that area. Ike Turner and Sam Cooke were born in the neighbouring town. Bessie Smith died in that town. Where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul is right there, at a crossroads. The horrible murder of Emmett Till took place a 35-minute drive away. It’s a charged, charged place – let alone [the Parchman] grounds, which are massive.”
Brennan describes sections of Parchman’s 28 sq miles as bucolic, but also notes that the worst areas were purposely restricted from him. On Zomba Prison Project, the Italian-Rwandan film-maker and photographer Marilena Delli Umuhoza (who is also Brennan’s wife) recorded video of the prison and its performers, but a condition of recording at Parchman was no photo or video (bureaucracy also made speaking to the prisoners impossible for this piece). Delli Umuhoza, who executive produced Some Mississippi Sunday Morning, says that nonetheless, it was important to show that the human spirit can create something beautiful, even in a terrible place: “It’s their right to be heard, and, to me, it’s very important to try to provide them a platform.”
The music of Some Mississippi Sunday Morning is as tragic as it is striking; raw and naked in the baldness of singing and its emotional honesty. The singer and pianist who performs on Give Myself Away, So You Can Use Me, who asked to remain anonymous, submits himself to the song, the concession in the lyrics giving his feelings a form. On Solve My Need, a man identified as M Palmer delivers a booming baritone that hits like a foghorn.
Gospel is a foundation of American music, especially in the south, and its melodies and messages have always lent themselves to times of unrest, as a balm for those seeking hope. But you can hear the way Sunday services are particularly restorative for someone incarcerated – not simply because of the promise of redemption, but the solace of not being alone. The closer, Lay My Burden Down, a communal performance that was the last thing recorded during Brennan’s visit, brought a group of divided men together as a unified body, and inmates initially separated along various ideological lines began high-fiving, hugging, smiling, and laughing.
Brennan was bowled over by the sight. “There’s a bed of sadness around incarceration that is inescapable, but to have joy within that, and that contrast, is all the more poignant.” He had been invited back to the Grammys but skipped it to make his visit to Parchman happen. “I told them at the end that I would remember that day vividly for the rest of my life. And I will, I’m certain of that. I told them there will be no better performances tonight at the Grammys than there were here. Because I think the greatest performances reach a point of transcendence where there is no competition.”
Parchman farm, like all prisons, is designed to dehumanise the people confined there. The Justice Department investigation prompted by the Team ROC lawsuits revealed systemic violations that led to physical and psychological harm, including prolonged isolation in solitary confinement under “egregious conditions.” Some Mississippi Sunday Morning feels like these men reaching out for the things such a barbaric system tries to deny them: compassion, intimacy, and mercy. The songs are not just purges of anxieties accrued on the inside or calls for the Lord’s embrace, but also pleas to be acknowledged as a person and not an ID number.
To that end, Brennan sees the experience in the room as the priority, “and if at the end of that there’s a record, that’s just a bonus. I’m just trying to do justice to the courage of people to share.” Voices, Brennan says, “really, ultimately, can’t be taken from somebody. It can be attempted to be denied, but it’s in that person’s possession; it’s part of them. I take it as a massive responsibility to be entrusted with.”
There will always be concern, though, about creative control and what it means to record and distribute the music of inmates. This project wasn’t made for profit – all proceeds go to the Mississippi Department of Corrections Chaplain Services – but there are more nuanced conversations to be had about voyeurism and race; after all, a white documentarian capturing majority Black subjects can reek of the zoological. Brennan says trying to navigate that keeps him up at night. “The goal is to de-exoticise. That history is ugly, ugly, ugly, and maybe there’s that risk,” he says. “We’re trying to represent truthfully. And when you’re talking about music that’s recorded 100% live without overdubs, that’s it.”
In a separate conversation, Delli Umuhoza adds, “As a racialised person who grew up in a white-centric country, I think that it’s really important to make representation a priority, especially giving visibility to people that otherwise do not get the same voice.”
Very early on, Brennan provided me a sort of mission statement for his work: “Ethically and morally, we are obligated to listen to those least listened to or even silenced or censored.” For him, questions about encroachment have to take a backseat to what must be heard. “It’s very important that the music stands on its own,” Brennan says. “Anybody that focuses on the politics of it is doing the artists a disservice. Because the focus should be on their voices.” Imbued with a deep longing to be defined by more than the worst moment in their lives, those voices ring out and stir the soul
Parchman Prison Prayer: Some Mississippi Sunday Morning is out now on Glitterbeat Records
This article was amended on 21 September 2023. Alan Lomax – also a distinguished musicologist – was John’s son, not his brother as an earlier version said.
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Ian Brennan produced Yanna Momina’s debut album, Afar Ways, for Glitterbeat Records