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PARCHMAN FARM - PHOTOGRAPHS & FIELD RECORDINGS 1947-59 (BOOK & 2CD)

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Dust-To-Digital (DTD-37)

CDs include recordings by Henry Wallace, C.B. Cook, Benny Will Richardon, Walter Jackson, Dan Barnes, Milton Smith, Hollie Dew, W.D. Stewart, Tim Taylor, Floyd Batts, Clarence Alexander, Clyde Jones, John Dudley, Ed Lewis, Grover Wells, Leroy Campbell, Henry Ratcliff and more...

Another awe-inspiring set from Dust-To-Digital who, in conjunction with Nathan Salsburg (curator of the Alan Lomax Archive), have put together the results of a series of visits made by folklorist Alan Lomax behind the barbed wire of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Armed with just a reel-to-reel audio tape deck on his first two visits in 1947 and 1948, but also with a camera for his third and final visit in 1959, Lomax was able to put on record what he found. Sadly, this was a brutally savage and ruthless regime geared not around the containment and rehabilitation of hardened criminals but around the provision of an enforced supply of labour to work the field and help turn a  profit on the  cotton crop.

Within the beautifully presented 124 page hard cover landscape format book, housed in a quality slipcase and foil stamping, there are 77 evocative photographs (many published here for the first time). These photos present  the inmates at work from ‘can’t to can’t‘ (can’t see in the morning until can’t see at night) and at rest and play. Supplemented by a Forward by Alan Lomax himself (from 1958), an introductory essay by Anna Lomax Wood (2013), an essay by Bruce Jackson (2013) and transcriptions of Lomax’s interview material, this book is a deeply affecting piece, bringing home the enforced and enclosed world inmates were made to endure and the dignity, fortitude and stoicism they had to present in order to make it through.

This impression is re-enforced by the 2CDs that includes 44 audio recordings of work songs, field hollers, spirituals, blues and a variety of other folk songs. A number of these are little known and presumably invented by, and known only among, the inmates who sang them on the prison farm. Others mine a more familiar repertoire of popular folk songs, such as Stack-O-Lee And Billy Lyons, Whoa Buck and John Henry. By the 1959 recordings, it was also evident that blues stylings and songs, such as Tommy Johnson’s Cool Drink Of Water Blues and Big Road Blues had also found their way into the repertoires of those inmates who took their musical interests beyond being a primary method of helping them getting through the working day.

The music on these CDs is both an intensely sobering experience (where it clearly exists as much more than just as an entertaining diversion) and is deeply impressive. Much of the contents on these CDs are to be marvelled at even outside of the context of where it came from; listen for example to I’m Going Home by Ervin Webb And Group, a beautifully paced and sung acapella piece, or Early In The Morning by ‘Tangle Eye’ (Walter Jackson), ‘Hard Hat (Willie Lacey), ‘22’ (Benny Will Richardson), ‘Little Red’ (unknown), a triumph of vocals and axes!

Serious, serious music. Every home should have this set!

(UK p&p on this set is £3.50)

Review Date: January 2015

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