Parchman Farm 1947 and 1948

1947 to 1948
United States
After nearly 15 years since his first visit with his father in 1933, Alan Lomax returned to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman Farm. Instead of toting their earlier cumbersome disc-cutting machine, he was equipped with a state-of-the-art reel-to-reel tape deck, on which he documnted as best an outsider could the stark and savage conditions of the prison farm, where the Black inmates labored “from can’t to can’t,” chopping timber, clearing ground, and picking cotton for the state of Mississippi. They sang as they worked, often keeping time with axes or hoes, adapting to their condition the slavery-time hollers that sustained their forbears and creating a new body of American song. Theirs was music, as Lomax wrote, that “testified to the love of truth and beauty which is a universal human trait.” As he wrote in 1958: “A few strands of wire were all that separated the prison from adjoining plantations. Only the sight of an occasional armed guard or a barred window in one of the frame dormitories made one realize that this was a prison. The land produced the same crop; there was the same work for blacks to do on both sides of the fence. And there was no Delta black who was not aware of how easy it was for him to find himself on the wrong side of those few strands of barbed wire…. These songs are a vivid reminder of a system of social control and forced labor that has endured in the South for centuries, and I do not believe that the pattern of Southern life can be fundamentally reshaped until what lies behind these roaring, ironic choruses is understood.”
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