As I sit here typing out the review to "Wake Up Dead Man," published by the University of Georgia Press in 1999, I'm listening to a prison Blues CD. The music contained on the compact disc is only a small portion of what Alan Lomax contributed to the Library of Congress archives. The songs on the CD were recorded at the Mississippi and Louisiana State Penitentiaries. What this book deals with are "Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons" (the subtitle to the original edition) first published in 1972. Although many miles separated the prisons of Texas from those in Mississippi or Louisiana, the tradition of song was much the same.
The importance of prison worksongs and their relationship to Blues cannot be understated. Both have their roots in Africa, both flourished in the plantation fields of the South, both are based on the call-and-response closely associated with Blues, and both act, or have acted, as a form of release and relief for the singer and singers alike. Bruce Jackson tells us quickly in the preface of "Wake Up Dead Man" that this tradition no longer exists; when segregation of inmates ended, so did a tradition.
There were other factors which contributed to the demise of this form of song; the use of machinery replaced the sweat and labor of man, the discontinuation of the chain gangs that worked the fields or roads, and the entry of younger African American men into the penitentiary system. Much like Blues, when people like Muddy or Wolf spoke of the disinterest of younger Negroes in the tradition of their music; young prisoners entering the penal system had little use for the old songs or the 'Uncle Tom' feel perpetuated through the use of them.
The purpose of the prison worksong was relatively simple. Used as a steady rhythm to work by, it kept inmates from hurting workers at their sides with an axe or similar tool. Also, it was a way of making it in 'Hell.' Singing allowed these men a small amount of dignity that otherwise would not have existed back when author Bruce Jackson did his research for this book in the 1960's. Deciding to use grant money he was allowed while at college, he chose to visit few prisons more frequently, as opposed to visiting a large number of prisons only a few times. The writer chose the state of Texas since the penal system there was recognized years ago as the most brutal in the country. Research was done at three primary institutions; the Ramsey unit (Camps 1 and 2), Ellis, and Wynne. Allowed complete freedom in these facilities, Bruce Jackson talked with, interviewed, and recorded inmates over time to collect information for this book.
One of the great successes of this work is that actual written transcriptions of interviews are used early on with a number of the inmates. We get a look inside the worlds of people like Chinaman, Bacon and Porkchop, Cowboy, Mack Maze, J.B. Smith, and others as they explain the use of the songs, life inside the penitentiary system, and what it took to survive there. What Jackson documented was primarily the worksong itself, its use, a brief history, and how it survived. Through interviews with prisoners, once they understood what he was doing, they revealed an awful lot in the way of life as an inmate.
I was a little disappointed when I came to an early passage in the book where Jackson explained that Blues songs were not used as examples within the pages, getting deeper into the book, however, I realized that even though they were not used as a whole, the lyrics of songs by Ishmon Bracey, Skip James, and many others became important parts of the tradition.
As this is a book about the prison worksong, author Bruce Jackson concentrates on the form as such without a lot detail on where it all started, but this is no way takes away from the depth of the book. African tradition used songs as a rhythm to work by and when slaves were brought to this country, the music came with them, and was truly one of the few things they could hold onto. As plantations grew in the South, so did the worksong; as slaves married and had children who learned them as well. Where Jackson picks up is perhaps more during the 1960's when he did most of his research.
Prison inmates were put to work in the various institutions where they were housed. Working in the cotton or tobacco fields, road and chain gangs, or clearing forests, there were different types of songs for each type of labor. A team would choose a leader as their singer, usually a man with a clear voice who could easily be heard. 'Proper' singing wasn't necessary but the volume of the voice was. Sometimes, teams or crews of as many as eight men were put to work cutting a tree down, with each member of that team supplied an axe. The reason the worksong was so important to the team was simple; with eight men swinging individual axes at the same target, without a rhythm to work by, havoc would be the natural outcome! Simply put, it was a matter of the downbeat for one team to swing, and the upbeat for the other team to swing. In an eight man team, four men would follow the lead voice on the downbeat, so as they would swing their axes into the base of a tree, the opposite team would be singing a refrain and pulling their axes away from the tree. Road gangs and chain gangs would usually work with hoes or picks and in a straight line. Again, the leader would be the man with the clearest voice and he would start a song by singing the first line, then the entire team would use that rhythm and sing the second line. Field workers had songs of a more personal nature as they worked individually, singing primarily for their own enjoyment and to pass the time.
The influence of Blues in the prison worksong becomes very evident as Jackson not only interviewed inmates, but using portable equipment, he recorded their songs at work in the fields, forests, and road gangs. Delta Blues man Tommy Johnson's 1928 Paramount recording of "Cool Drink Of Water Blues" obviously influenced Mack Maze's "Easy Rider," recorded in August of 1965:
Say, oh, easy rider, what make you so mean,
I yell for water, partner, give me gasoline.
In the song "Shorty George" by inmates Matt Williams and Louis 'Bacon and Porkchop' Houston, there is a close similarity to Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain" when they sing:
Oh well yon' stands a train with red green lights behind... (2x)
Well that's red for trouble, green for ramblin' mind. )
Ishmon Bracey's "Trouble Hearted Blues," recorded in 1928 had the lyrics: )
Don't believe I'm sinkin', look what a hole I'm in)
you don't believe I love you, Lord, look what a fool I've been. )
In J.B. Smith's "Ever Since I Been a Man Full Grown," he uses lyrics very close to those of Bracey's:
Life been a long lone gamble, I just can't seem to win, )
If you don't believe I'm a sinkin', look what a hole I'm in... )
Other examples are given by author Bruce Jackson, but I have chosen to use some he has not, if only to show additional similarities to the lyrics of Blues songs from the 1920's on. There are many other songs that have a close relationship to Blues in the book.
As much of a lost tradition as the prison worksong seems to be, Bruce Jackson brings them to life in "Wake Up Dead Man." Getting to know the inmates he interviewed, recorded, and ultimately befriended; we are allowed to see a side of life many of us will be grateful never to be a part of. To be able to make it in 'Hell,' these songs were a means of sanity as well as safety. The close similarities to Blues songs are many, and certainly, anyone with an interest in Blues lyrics should read this fine work by Bruce Jackson. Those interested in what prison life was like while these songs breathed life into inmates should find it and read it as well. Very interesting, very informative, and also very personal, this is highly recommended!
Contact: University of Georgia Press - Athens, GA - 30602
This review is copyright © 2000 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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