Prison Songs

Recordings 1947–1948 by Alan Lomax
Notes by Alan Lomax, Matthew Barton, and Anna Wood
John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, and other collectors before and after their time, found some of America’s most powerful vernacular music in the oppressive and violent prison system of the South where men worked from “can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night.” Songs like these, the Lomaxes noted in 1941, had been sung all over the South. “With the coming of the machines, however, the work gangs were broken up. The songs then followed group labor into its last retreat, the road gang and the penitentiary, flourishing there because they were essential to the spiritual as well as the physical survival of the black prisoners.” These wood-cutting and tie-tamping songs, field hollers, lies, and the occasional blues, were recorded by Alan Lomax on Magnacord paper tapes at Parchman Farm, Mississippi, in 1947 and 1948 and first published as Negro Prison Songs LP on Tradition in 1958.

“The good thing about these is that they’re so raw, they’re recorded so raw, that it’s just like listening to a landscape. It’s like listening to a big open field. You hear other things in the background. You hear people talking while they are singing. It’s the hair in the gate.” —Tom Waits

Vol. 1: Murderous Home
Vol. 2: Don’tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling?