I'm down on Parchman farm
I sho' wanna go back home
I'm down on Parchman farm
But I sho' wanna go back home
But I hope some day
I will overcome

— Bukka White, "Parchman Farm Blues"

Built up in the wake of emancipation, Southern prisons went from being small institutions that primarily housed white people to large institutions disproportionately housing Black people. 

Vagrancy laws, Jim Crow ordinances, and the pervasive criminalization of Black Southerners meant that imprisonment in brutal institutions such as Parchman Farm, Sugar Land, and Angola was frighteningly normal. Once there, people were forced to labor as leased convicts—all at a considerable profit to the state and in exceptionally dangerous conditions. Even the de jure end of convict leasing in the 1920s gave way to the chain gang.

In the past few years, there's been more attention paid to the fact that prisons are sites of extraction: They rip people from communities and families. They exploit workers with unpaid and underpaid labor. This much, most people recognize. But for roughly a century, prisons have also functioned as sites of cultural and creative extraction, especially of music. 

Left: Incarcerated musician "Lightnin'" Washington singing with his group in the woodyard at Darrington State Farm, Texas, 1934. Center: Incarcerated men, possibly the singers of "Rock Island Line," working with shovels at Cummins State Farm in Gould, Arkansas, 1934. Right: Prisoners singing while working with axes at Reed Camp, South Carolina, during one of Alan Lomax's visits. Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Lomax Collection.

Prisons were spaces where music was regularly created—and not only for the residents themselves, but for Southern society at large. Incarcerated people had work songs, hollers, and chants to break up the monotony of their toil. Songs varied depending on the kind of work: The music was up-tempo when you could move quickly, and slower if it was more difficult. 

Beyond songs about work, there were also songs about prison itself. Probably the most iconic of these songs was "The Midnight Special" by Lead Belly. Like many blues songs, it was pieced together from parts of other blues songs, with individual singers putting their own stamp on it over time. Sam Collins' version, which came out in 1927, introduced a verse about a woman begging for her man's freedom: 

Yonder come a-little Nora, how do you know?
I know by the ap'on and the dress she wear
Umbarella over 'er shoulder, piece of paper in her hand
Lookin' for some sergeant to release her man

Lead Belly made his lyrics specific to his first arrest in Houston, warning the listener: 

If you ever go to Houston,
Boys, you better walk right,
And you better not squabble
And you better not fight.

Southerners engaged with the music that came out of their carceral institutions. Guitarist Bukka White managed to record a couple of songs before being sent to Parchman Farm. In fact, his song "Shake 'Em On Down" became a hit. White was so famous within the prison that not only was he exempt from much of the work, but the governor of Mississippi knew who he was—and even attended a performance. This kind of fame was uncommon, and most musicians did not find that their talents won them any special treatment.

Meanwhile, in the North, Southern prisons became laboratories as folklorists sought to record and study Black music. Working for the Library of Congress, John Lomax and his son Alan were charged with collecting folk songs, which as John described, were, "songs… in musical phrasing and in poetic content are most unlike those of the white race, the least contaminated by white influence or the modern Negro jazz." Lomax thought prisons were ideal because they were segregated and isolated—"thus a long-time Negro convict spends many years with practically no chance of hearing a white man speak or sing."

Left: Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) standing among his cellmates of prison compound No. 1 at Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary, 1934. Right: Lead Belly performing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., sometime between 1938 and 1948. Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Lomax Collection and William P. Gottlieb.

Lomax's writings about this work are stunningly paternalistic, rooted in a kind of white voyeurism that at times, reveals its own racist underpinnings. His fetishistic interest in African American music also caused him to look down on any music or musician whose influences were "too white." To Lomax, songs could only be "folk songs" if they were divorced from any connection to white popular culture. Lomax believed at some level that there was an essential or "pure" African American form of music. Moreover, his treatment of the people that he recorded rested on cooperation with prison authorities—and, in a few cases, outright coercion. On at least one occasion, he enlisted a warden to compel John Gibson (also known as "Black Samson"), a man incarcerated in Nashville who was uncomfortable singing non-spiritual music, to record folk songs. 

"We do this performance and then he signs this bill while his wife holds a small Black child. I really saw in a new way the political tool that we were for the state."

The Lomaxes were not the only musicologists plumbing Southern prisons for musical brilliance. David Cohn, a journalist and expatriate Mississippian, spent time at Parchman Farm for a book, God Shakes Creation, for which he recorded lyrics from women imprisoned in the camp. Harry Oster, an English professor, followed the lead of the Lomaxes in the 1950s and went back to Angola State Prison to record work songs. and in the case of Robert Pete Williams, recorded a full album. As late as the 1960s, folklorist Bruce Jackson was conducting oral histories with incarcerated people in Texas. He also recorded an album of songs, Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons

While individuals hoped to find fame and earn their freedom, those in power found ways to benefit from the music made within prisons by forcing or coercing people into performing for the public became very normal. 

Left: Members of the Huntsville Unit Pentitatary Band play outside of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville in 1962. Right: A 1960 Huntsville Unit musical group prepares for a performance. Photos courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

By the 1950s, Angola State Prison allowed prison bands to tour local communities and even play at the Governor's mansion on Sundays. Starting in 1938, Texas had a weekly radio program, Thirty Minutes Behind The Walls, which showcased music and interviews with people in prison. In the 1940s, the Goree All String Band was broadcast all over the country from a studio in Huntsville. Most of their national audience was likely unaware that they were called the "Goree Girls" because they were imprisoned at Goree State Farm, Texas' only prison for women at the time. Lomax also recorded people there, though no recordings were made of the Goree Girls specifically.

Carla Simmons is a current member of the women's choir Voices for Hope at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Georgia. Like the Goree Girls before them, her choir travels across the whole state and plays for a variety of different audiences: conventions and barn festivals, political events, and churches.

"One time in particular, Nathan Deal was the governor, and he was signing a bill in this Black Baptist church in Gainesville, Georgia," recalls Simmons. "We get there and the Secret Service is there! We do this performance and then he signs this bill while his wife holds a small Black child. I really saw in a new way the political tool that we were for the state." 

Segregated iterations of The Goree All-Girl String Band or "Goree Girls," incarcerated at The Goree State Farm for Women, performed at the Texas Prison Rodeo throughout the 1940s. Photos courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Unsurprisingly, Angola likes to advertise the musical talents of people who are incarcerated, as they're central to Southern music history. The Guts and Glory Traveling Band (named for an event in the Angola Prison Rodeo) has traveled around the state since the 1960s; the prison has so many bands that it even hosted a music symposium in 2016. But the musical idea that prisons like to come back to again and again is gospel. Prisons tend to publicize or support these projects above others because they bolster the narrative that prisons play a role in reforming people, giving the institutions a kind of moral legitimacy. Even in Angola, the prison's radio mostly plays gospel music and religious programming. 

Voices of Hope has also recorded two studio albums, and Emily Saliers from the Indigo Girls helped fund the production of them both. However, the money from their sales goes straight to the ministry, and the members of the choir aren't paid for their work. "We never have access to that money nor are we involved in even the knowledge of how it's allocated," Simmons said.

In lieu of payment, Carla and the others accept it in-kind: "It was understood that when we went… there was an opportunity for the venue to provide us with a meal. In some way, it was understood that that was like our payment."

Musicians can entertain and play for the public, but only as a privilege—it's rare that they can play for themselves.

Financial exploitation has always been part and parcel of working with incarcerated musicians and singers. After his release from Angola, the famous Lead Belly, billed by Time Magazine as the "Murderous Minstrel," sang himself out of prison and began a short-lived partnership with Lomax, who acted as his manager and promoter. Their relationship later ended acrimoniously over Lomax's fees and insistence on paying Lead Belly in installments. 

Now, JPay, a messaging service and media platform for incarcerated individuals, has replaced the Lomaxes of the world, serving as intermediaries between incarcerated musicians and their audiences, and making money off their creativity in the process. With one hand, it can charge $1.99 a song to people who don't have any alternatives and can't access free streaming services, and with the other it can charge exorbitant fees just for distribution. The states get a small cut too, helping to prop up their system.

So, why do incarcerated people still perform? As it turns out, in the past as is now, there are a host of reasons that lead folks with less power to participate in the very systems that exploit them. Carla explained why she joined Voices of Hope: "There's also this really sick element that there is a hope that by being part of this very exclusive group that your ability to make parole will be increased." 

Left: Singing groups of the Huntsville Unit performed for the KPRC radio show "Thirty Minutes Behind The Walls" at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Right: The Ferguson Unit Rhythmeer Band plays at the Jim Ferguson Unit in Madison County, Texas. Photos courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Historically, for many of those on the inside, music became a rare vehicle for people to try and earn their freedom—even if the odds were small, they were better than the certainty of life on a prison farm. Lead Belly's first release from prison happened because he wrote a song for Texas Governor Pat Neff, who liked it so much that he gave the musician a pardon. Most of the Goree Girls sang to win early release. Robert Pete Williams' recordings with Harry Oster helped him secure release with the Louisiana Parole Board.

In addition to the possibility of parole, music programs offer coveted access to the outside world. "I was able to see headlights from oncoming traffic in the dark," Simmons remembers. "I was able to see trees along the highway. I could see the road that my child lives on. That exposure alone was enough to put me through whatever conflict."

Another iteration of the Goree All-Girl String Band, "The Goree Gals," pictured in 1964. Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. How prisons shaped the South's music history.
Another iteration of the Goree All-Girl String Band, "The Goree Gals," pictured in 1964. Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

And at the end of the day, there was the music. "We were able to move a crowd outside of this political jargon—people were very moved by our performances."

It's probably not a surprise that in a country that boasts almost a quarter of the world's incarcerated population, the state controls the music people on the inside are allowed to listen to, as well as the songs they're allowed to make. It wants to use groups like Voices for Hope to create a redemption narrative and highlight the moral transformation of imprisonment, like it did with the Goree Girls. Musicians can entertain and play for the public, but only as a privilege—it's rare that they can play for themselves.

Singing to the sound, of the ringing I've found
As it comes from the back of my ear
No you cannot destroy the idea

— Discordian Society, "Ideas"

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For as long as police have existed, Black folks have fought for safety. In Memphis, a city marked by racial violence and injustice, blues greats like Louis Armstrong and John Gary Williams harnessed the power of the city's Black music for resistance.

Zeb Larson is a historian and writer currently based in Columbus, OH. His research deals with the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. For somebody who has never lived in the South, he's obsessed with its cuisine, music, history, and culture.