In 1933, famed ethnomusicologist John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax pioneered on an arduous journey to capture the sounds of the American South. They wanted to find African-American folk songs in its purest form as close to the days of slavery as possible. Lomax believed prisons provided the best source as its walls created a filter to the perversions of popular music.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola but typically dubbed “The Farm” by locals, was a plantation owned by infamous slave trader Isaac Franklin prior to being converted into a prison. In the 1930s and 40s the plantation-style farming of prisoners working the fields while singing under the watchful eyes of overseers still existed. Conditions were reminiscent of slavery and their labor was easily replaceable due to the convict lease system. Runaways were shot on site. The conditions in Angola were so ruthless that in 1930 prisoners working on levees along a rising Mississippi River chose to swim across to escape the brutality. They did not make it across, and many bodies were never recovered. In 1952, 31 prisoners cut their Achilles tendon to protest the inhumane conditions.
The Lomaxes found stunning sounds from Angola’s imprisoned, much of it dating back to slavery. They recorded as much as they could to keep their voices alive. The results are stunning:
They were so impressed with one singer, Huddie Ledbetter, who was imprisoned for murder, that they sent his recordings to then Louisiana Governor Oscar K. Allen along with a petition for his release. Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was soon released and lived the remainder of his life as a successful artist. His music inspired a nation and was covered by some of the world’s most famous musicians: The Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, The Animals, the Grateful Dead, Keith Richards, Van Morrison, Nirvana, The White Stripes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, among many others.
Today, some of the musical traditions dating back to slavery, such as gospel quartets, continue on The Farm. Music is still an intricate aspect of prison life. For many, prison life is the only life some will know as Louisiana leads the nation with disproportionately high incarceration rates. Angola is still the largest maximum security prison in the U.S.
For some lagniappe, here is a set of songs they recorded from the Mississippi State Penitentiary around the same time. It’s interesting to note that some of the best music in the history of our country emerged from such misery.
Sources and Further Reading: Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, NPR, The American Folk Life Center.