“Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959” is at once beautiful and horrifying. Many of the photographs are stunning, and give people a glimpse into a world that they know nothing about, and never want to experience. And the 44 songs are outstanding examples of traditional and original tunes; it’s not difficult to see how these pieces of music made their way into songs that would be considered “modern.”
And yet, the pictures are all of prison life at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, and all of the songs are sung by prisoners, many of them violent criminals, and many who would be—and knew they would be—spending the rest of their days behind the fences of Parchman Farm. And “farm” is the right word; Parchman was simply a working cotton plantation in the Mississippi delta, with all of the labor supplied by prisoners.
Alan Lomax and his father John first visited Parchman Farm in the 1930s; Alan returned in 1947, 1948 and 1959 to record the convicts as they performed their worksongs, and to take photographs. These songs served two basic functions. The first is the reason music is made today: emotion, to make the singer feel better when he’s down, to express pleasure when he’s feeling good. But the second was more important: the cadence of the singing kept everyone working at the same pace, which was important when the reality was that slower workers could be singled out and whipped.
This is roots music at its most basic. The only instrumentation is the sound of axes striking tree trunks, of shovels and pickaxes tearing into the dirt. But the harmonies are often as striking as those realized by the very best vocal groups, and there is nothing false in any of the emotions. These are songs performed by people who needed to sing, and that often comes through loud and clear.
Listening to these voices, it’s not hard to imagine that they could have belonged to members of The Ink Spots, The Orioles, The Marcels, or any of the other African-American vocal groups of the 40s, 50s and early 60s. Maybe it really was a matter of no more than a bad choice at a bad time that put the vocalists into a Mississippi prison instead of a concert hall stage. Realizing that makes the music more tragic and disturbing but, in a strange way, more beautiful and impressive.
It is impossible to discuss “Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959” without mentioning Dust-to-Digital, the Atlanta company that produced this fine collection. Dust-to-Digital’s mission remains the same as when it began: to produce high-quality, cultural artifacts, and this beautiful slipcovered book/CD set is another impressive addition to their collection. If it is from Dust-to-Digital, it is worthy of a listen, and a worthy addition to any collection, and www.dust-digital is worth bookmarking on your computer.