In 1947, ’48 and ’59, renowned folklorist Alan Lomax went behind the barbed wire into the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Armed with a reel-to-reel tape deck—and, in 1959, a camera—Lomax documented as best an outsider could the stark and savage conditions of the prison farm, where the black inmates laboured “from can’t to can’t,” chopping timber, clearing ground, and picking cotton for the state. They sang as they worked, 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.”
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