This issue celebrates the start of a new projec: an architectural photo blog about jails. It’s called The Long View, and it’s a collection of screenshots of prisons (like this one of Alcatraz) taken on Google and Apple Maps. Many songs are about doing time, and I guess an even greater number have been written while in prison. I’ve left out songs that use the prison as a metaphor (like Prisoner of Love by James Brown): we’re all prisoners of something, but actual jail time is a different story.

Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues (1968)

johnny cash

Perhaps the ultimate prison song, Folsom Prison Blues also plays an important part in the Johnny Cash mythology. According to Wikipedia, “Cash was inspired to write this song after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while serving in West Germany in the United States Air Force (1951/54).” Released in 1955 by Sun Records, produced by Sam Phillips, Folsom Prison Blues☊ is one of the Golden Age Johnny Cash recordings (just before the Million Dollar Quartet, his label mates where Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis). It became one of his signature songs, and he performed it throughout his career.

But of course the version we all remember best is when Johnny took the song home in 1968, performing it live at Folsom Prison, in California. Cash, who proposed and battled with his label to do this recording, was very nervous about it. They rehearsed for two days (very unusual, considered that he played hundreds of gigs every year), and Cash scheduled two performances, in case something went wrong. Folsom Prison Blues obviously opened the show, and it opens the album too – with the now legendary introduction “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”, followed by an explosive response from the inmates.

This is a rough song, written from the point of view of someone who knows he’s done very bad things:

I hear the train a comin’, it’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone.

When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.

I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a movin’, and that’s what tortures me.

Well if they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay
And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.

I’m not surprised Cash was nervous. His audience actually knew what he was talking about: they weren’t just Outlaw Country fans, but the real thing. They obviously felt well represented by the Man in Black, who was crowned musical King of all Outlaws – real and imaginary. Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison went on to become one of the most iconic Country recordings in history and, since then, every bad-ass song song has had to compete with the line: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

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James Carter and the Prisoners: Po Lazarus (1959)

Parchman Farm, 1959. Photo by Alan Lomax

Parchman Farm, 1959. Photo by Alan Lomax (click to enlarge)

A large part of the earliest African-American folklore was recorded in American prisons. The reason is well explained by Alan Lomax, who made some of these recordings: “Only a few strands of barbed wire marked the boundary between the Parchman State Penitentiary and the so-called free world. Yet every Delta black knew he could easily find himself on the wrong side of that fence.”* In 1933, Lomax’s father John, an essential figure in African-American folklore studies, started to make recordings in prisons, famously at Angola, Louisiana, where he “discovered” Leadbelly. Alan followed in his father’s steps, and in 1959 he visited Mississippi to record songs. These recordings were published shortly afterwards in a series of LPs entitled Southern Journey. This song was included in Vol. 5: Bad Man Ballads – Songs Of Outlaws And Desperadoes, recorded at Parchman Farm.

The Mississippi State Penitentiary, as it’s officially called, is immense: it occupies 73 square km in northern Mississippi, and it was actually built by inmates (starting in 1901). The landscape from above is Vangoghesque but, despite the pastoral name, Parchman Farm “also houses the male death row, as well as the state execution chamber”*.

Of the many recordings that Alan Lomax made at Parchman Farm in ’59, Po Lazarus is by far the most famous, because it was included in Brother, where art thou?, one of the funniest (and most musical) Coen bros. movies. The whole soundtrack, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is outstanding, and it won him a number of awards, including a Grammy. Moreover, Burnett and the Coens managed to track down the original Po Lazarus lead singer, James Carter, and present him with a 20.000$ royalty check: “Carter, who had spent much of his adult life working as a shipping clerk, told them he did not remember having sung the song 40 years previously.”*

This is one of the most intense recordings I’ve ever heard. Punctuated by the sound of axes chopping wood, they sing a song that could be about any of them:

Well, the high sheriff told his deputy
I want you go out and bring me Lazarus
Bring him dead or alive, Lawd, Lawd
Bring him dead or alive.

It’s a story, but also a work song and a Blues, sung with an intensity that, I guess, might come with being behind bars. The music is a rare glimpse in the prehistory of what, later, will become Blues, Jazz – and most of modern music. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, this is not something created to please our ears: this is what Parchman Farm sounded like.

Thanks to the Alan Lomax Estate, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and the Association for Cultural Equity, the Lomax archives (recordings, photos, interviews, film, etc.) are available online.

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* From Wikipedia

Sam Cooke: Chain gang (1960)

sam cooke chain gangTo me, this is a very odd, disconnected tune. I mean: the sound of the men working on a chain gang is the one above, not this pop number. Yet, Chain Gang wasn’t only a big hit for Cooke but, according to Wikipedia, “it was inspired after a chance meeting with an actual chain gang of prisoners on a highway, seen while Sam was on tour. According to legend, Cooke and his brother Charles felt sorry for the men and gave them several cartons of cigarettes.” (Lyrics here)

It begins with a vocal call and response: Hohs and Ahs. According to Cooke, “That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang”. But it seems like a 1960 teenage party to me. And the subsequent lyrics, in that musical setting, sound like mockery:

Can’t you hear them singing, mmm (Hoh! Ah!)
I’m going home one of these days
I’m going home, see my woman, whom I love so dear
But meanwhile I gotta work right here

All day long they’re singing, mmm (Hoh! Ah!)
My work is so hard, Give me water
I’m thirsty, my work is so hard, Woah ooo
My work is so hard.

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Runner ups

System of a Down: Prison Song☊ (2001) “Minor drug offenders fill your prisons you don’t even flinch, all our taxes paying for your wars against the new non-rich. They’re trying to build a prison (for you and me to live in).” (Full lyrics here)

Motörhead: Stay Out Of Jail♾ (2000) Words of advice from Lemmy, one of the most influential role models in the history of Rock.

Kid Frost: No Sunshine☊ (1992) This intense song was also a runner up in the Time MOSS issue: it’s a cautionary tale about doing time – another way to describe being in jail.

Elvis Presley: Jailhouse Rock♾ (1957) Horrible movie, but great song – big fun and absolutely no relation with correctional institutions: the warden threw a party in the county jail?

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