Deep River of Song: Big Brazos

Texas Prison Recordings, 1933 and 1934

Rounder 1836

Oh, it ain’t no more cane on this Brazos
They done grind it all in molasses

Of all the records I ever owned, or heard, or merely rubbed shoulders with, nothing fired my adolescent senses like Murderer’s Home.  No other record I can ever remember so clearly defined its own idiom.  Not The Best Of Muddy Waters, not Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, not the Woody Guthrie Library of Congress Recordings, and certainly not the mercifully attenuated Thirty Two Minutes and Seventeen Seconds with Cliff Richard.  Cover pictureLest I preach not to the converted, Murderer’s Home was a hair raising LP of Negro prison songs, which Alan Lomax recorded from convict work gangs in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1947.  It was a set of hard songs sung by hard men in the harshest and most brutal of working conditions.  It enthralled me and it appalled me.  It entranced me and it angered me.  Above all else, it encapsulated the spirit of the era I was living in.  I caught up with Lomax’s opus about the time of the struggles for civil rights in America and Ulster; about the time of Enoch Powell’s infamous rivers of blood speech; and about the time when the fight against the war in Vietnam was just starting to rage.  There is no arguing then that, during that particular phase of my existence, there was plenty in those songs to identify with.  To prove that age had not wearied them, Rounder re-issued Murderer’s Home a couple of years ago, together with a companion volume called Don’tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling.  I reviewed both discs for Musical Traditions, and I am here to tell you that those convicts had lost none of their power to shock.

Neither have these songs.  The question asks itself therefore, how does Big Brazos measure up to the milestone?  Well, these tracks are from Texas, and they were made some thirteen years earlier than the Mississippi set.  Also, they were primarily the work of John Lomax.  His son, Alan, was there, but mainly in the role of assistant.  More crucially, the present songs were captured via the disc cutting machines of the Library of Congress, whereas the 1947 ones had the benefit of modern recording tape.  There is therefore, no comparison in terms of sound quality, even though Rounder’s engineers have done a marvellous job of cleaning the material up.  For once I am not surmising - several of these recordings saw issue on various Library of Congress LPs.  That was long before the days of digital restoration and the difference between then and now is extremely noticeable.  The technological limitations of the time did, though, generate problems of fidelity, as far as representing how these songs were performed.  That is a point to which I will presently return.

In the meantime, the above differences notwithstanding, the whole thing reminds me of one of those remakes of the film, Die Hard.  You know, the ones where Bruce Willis always ends up alone in a blazing tower block, Photo of five prisoners chopping wood, axes raised.fighting armies of merciless hostage takers with one hand, and keeping the building from collapsing with the other.  There are the same meticulous song transcriptions, and the same harrowing tales of arduous oppression and backbreaking labour.  There are the same posses of axe wielding convicts, their lives hanging on the song leader’s timing, like the sword of Damocles.  There are the same stories of prison guard brutality; of judicially administered floggings and other forms of superintended torture; of a penal system which did not grow out of slavery, but was the legalised and institutionalised perpetuation of slavery.  There is the same crop of outlandish nicknames and mythical figures.  Appellations like ‘Iron Head’, ‘Clear Rock’, Lightnin’ and ‘Chinaman’ embellish the song credits.  They sing about Long John, the most celebrated escapee in the whole of the South.  They sing of Jack o’ Diamonds, a prison guard who held the record for the numbers of convicts he is supposed to have shot.  They sing about Old Rattler, a legendary bloodhound who could hunt down convicts like nothing you ever seen.  Ain’t no use breakin’ outa here.  Ain’t nobody got a chance with Old Rattler on their heels.  (sound clip: Old Rattler - Moses 'Clear Rock' Platt and James 'Iron Head' Baker, Central State Farm, Sugarland, Texas, probably May 1934)

play Sound Clip O b’lieve to my soul there’s a nigger gone.
Here Rattler, here.
O b’lieve to my soul there’s a nigger gone.
Here Rattler, here.
Why would anyone sing something like that?  Why celebrate the very animal whose raison d'être was to destroy the thing every convict held dear; the thought that one day he might bust out of the pen and never be recaptured?  A secular cosmology existed among convicts; a wild kaleidoscope of bad men and hard men and men who could take on steam drills and lick them at their own game.  Characters as tough as these could handle everything the pen threw at them, including dogs who thwarted their chances of escape.  They were survivors and they were models of emulation. 

Songs like Old Rattler are not about escaping from the pen.  They are a socio-psychological device for coping with the rigours of being in the pen.  They are a means of toughening up the mind, and thereby enabling the convict to cope with the mental alienation of being worked and bullied and hemmed and beaten. 

That is why so many of these songs resemble the exploits of Bruce Willis, and why their heroes hang in there like the last man standing.  This disc contains other utterances of a less epical nature, and I’ll come back to them in a minute.  Before I do, it would be pertinent to point out that the booklet notes are not by Bruce Willis, but by Bruce Jackson.  He is a folklorist who, as far as I know, doesn’t tangle with blazing tower blocks.  However, he has done extensive field recording in Texas penitentiaries, and his work is something I have had much cause to admire.  I am glad to report therefore, that the notes are generally excellent.  If Jackson’s style lacks a little of the pungency of Alan Lomax’s writing, he makes up for that by quoting extensively from the man himself.  Even so, I could have done with a little more on the economic geography of the region, for the repertoire differs from that of Mississippi in one crucial respect.  It is an important one, for certain of these Texas songs not appear to conform to the survival hypothesis. 

You ought to come on the river in nineteen-four
You could find a dead man on evr’ turn row.
These recordings were made in the Brazos river country.  Sugar cane is a major cash crop of the Brazos, and the songs associated with cane cutting seem to lead a singular existence.  True, this disc contains the usual tree felling songs and the usual bloodcurdling vocals, and there are hoeing and logging songs which stink of work and toil and beating sun and beaded sweat. 
When you hear my hammer strikin’ fire,
Run, water boy, run.
But the cane cutting songs don’t sound like that.  Economic geography is not a specialism of mine.  Neither is the history of slavery.  However, I do know that the work of harvesting cane is a lot more arduous and destructive of human life and spirit than cotton.  It was so arduous that, where the US slave population had achieved self-perpetuation by the early nineteenth century, a slave in the cane cutting colonies of the Caribbean, could expect to live no more than eight years from the day he or she was landed.  To their owners, the slaves who worked the cane were no more than a human cash crop; a commodity to be used and disposed of, just like the one they harvested.

It should be no surprise, then, to find that these cane cutting songs are the virtual antithesis of the stuff one associates with Negro work song.  To some extent that is due to the pace and nature of cane cutting.  It is slow and heavy work, and the cutters are spaced out, so there is no need for synchronisation.  But they are sad and mournful and bereft of spirit.  They remind me of songs from the first world war.  Not the Carry Me Back to Dear Old Blighty kind, play Sound Clipbut the sort soldiers made when they were sick to death of cold and wet and mud and bullets and barbed wire and trenches; sick of life itself.  The singers here don’t sound as though they expect to bust out of the pen.  They expect to be carried out.  (sound clip: Ain’t No More Cane on this Brazos - Ernest Williams and Group. Central State Farm. Sugarland, Texas, December 1933)

In case that sound clip set you wondering, Shorty George was the name the prisoners gave to the train which connected the Sugarland pen to the outside world;

What’s the matter, something must be wrong,
Keep on a-workin’, Shorty George done gone. 
The lifeline has been, and the lifeline has gone.  It brought no release.  No parole.  No visitors.  No mail.  Nothing but the unremitting round of excruciating, back breaking, stir-crazy-making boredom.

Going back to those booklet notes, I could have done with a little more on the singing style as well.  As Jackson points out, the mass media are fond of portraying song leaders as huge muscular men with deep bass voices.  Well, I too have seen that classic movie of the early depression years, I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.  I recall that it featured a colossal Negro swinging a sledge hammer way above his head, and singing in a voice that could have brought down the mountain.  However, as Jackson points out, such men were not popular as song leaders.  That is because bass voices travel in low sound frequencies, and low sound frequencies don’t travel very far.  Therefore, a deep voiced song leader has difficulty being heard.  But is inaudibility the only reason?  I’ve noticed that, wherever living or social conditions are unduly harsh, people tend to sing at the upper end of their register.  They rely on a forceful, straining delivery, just as these convicts do, and just as Cliff Richard doesn’t.  That is because singing is a way of giving vent to feeling, and people trapped in cruel circumstances have a lot of feeling to give vent to.

It is time to return to those technical limitations.  Anyone who read my previous review will note that I referred to these recordings as being made out of situ.  ie., microphone technology at that time was supposedly too primitive to permit the recording of convicts while they worked.  Therefore, the recordings had to be made back at base, after working hours, with the convicts too worn out to sing properly.  That is something I picked up from Alan Lomax’s writings, and the impression is given substance by the work songs on those Library of Congress issues.  Yet there are several tracks here which have clearly been recorded while work is in progress.  Jackson makes no mention of this, but I wondered at first if the recordings might have been simulations.  That is, did the Lomaxes get the convicts to act out the patterns of work back at the barracks?  That seems unlikely, for by and large, the performances are too realistic.  Nobody throws themselves into a frenzied simulation, the way these guys would have done, after a long gruelling day in the fields.  In fact, the in situ recordings are all of tree felling or logging songs.  They are songs where the convicts work in close proximity to each other.  My guess is firstly, that the recording equipment was too limited to pick up those songs where the convicts were spaced out, and it was these which were recorded after the day’s work was over.  play Sound ClipSecondly, I’m inclined to think that the degree of co-ordination, associated with axe wielding songs, might have precluded their being sung properly away from the job, where there were no axes to swing.  If so, they would have had to be recorded in situ, or not at all.  (sound clip: Long John - Lightnin’ Washington and Group. Darrington State Farm, Sandy Point. December 1933)

On the subject of artificial contexts; on Ain’t No More Cane on this Brazos, John Lomax can be heard prompting the gang into singing the last two verses of the song as we hear it here.  However, that particular recording, with the same six verses, was previously released on Library of Congress LP, AAFS L3; Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs and Ballads.  The notes to that LP make no mention of Lomax’s interjection and I cannot hear his voice on the record.  Could it be that it got lost in the crackle and hiss, or did Alan Lomax cut it out, when he edited the LP?

I may have created the impression that this disc duplicates, rather than complements those other Rounder issues.  Strictly speaking, it doesn’t do either.  It stands on its own merits as a fine record of Black American folk art, and a timeless reminder of just how brutal the human race can get.  All the same, if you haven’t yet broken into the worksong market, Big Brazos is one to move on to, rather than one to start with.  But in comfort-laden 21st century Blairite Britain, why listen to this kind of gear at all?

Little boy, what’d you do for to get so long?
Said, ‘I killed my rider (woman) in the high sheriff’s arms.
In an odd sort of way, I feel uneasy about turning onto this stuff, as though enjoyment of the music somehow perpetuates the injustice.  I never did get to hear Thirty Two Minutes and Seventeen Seconds, but reason tells me I would have hated it.  To anyone whose ears had been opened to Muddy Waters and Clarence Ashley, and those roaring convicts hurling defiance into the skies, it would have felt like a soporific life sentence.  It would have been like five years under Tony Blair.  Cliff Richard appealed to a generation which never knew hardship; a generation which had been nurtured on the fat of the welfare state.  His audience never swung an axe under the blistering sun of a Texas sky, or felt the blistering gaze of mounted, circling, gun-toting guards.  They never worked a hoe from the first greying of daylight until the rays of the red setting sun were utterly exhausted; as exhausted as the men who prayed that one day ‘old Hannah’ would set and never rise again until the release of Armageddon. 
Go down old Hannah, well, well, well,
Don’t you rise no more.
If music born of comfort and security and free orange juice is so vapid that you’re glad to get off after thirty two minutes and seventeen seconds, that in no way detracts from the march of progress.  If progress spelt the death of the Negro worksong, if progress brought humane treatment to convicts ensnared in the penal system of the greatest ‘democracy’ on earth, if progress spelt the loss of a paltry fifty seven minutes and fourteen seconds worth of entertainment, that would be a very small price to pay.  But when the last battle is won; when there are no more wars or hunger; when poverty and disease have been eradicated; when cruelty and sadism are yellowed and fading words in an out of date dictionary; when the wretched of the earth are no longer driven from their homelands by mad dictators, only to have their claims for asylum dismissed as bogus; when human beings cease to have the skin flayed from their backs because of the colour of that skin - will there be any music?

Fred McCormick - 4.11.00

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