Sunday, March 26, 2017

Prison: Parchman Farm

Bukka White: Parchman Farm Blues


Mose Allison: Parchman Farm


Johnny Rivers: Parchman Farm


Parchman Farm is one of many blues songs about prison. I could have probably found one blues song for each day of this theme, and I already shared another classic one, The Midnight Special. Why then is Parchman Farm my next choice? As you can hear in the versions I have chosen, the song can be a case study in the transformation of the blues. That also touches on the history of the place. Parchman Farm was a notorious work farm in Mississippi. The inmates were treated harshly, and the profits of the fruits of their labors went mostly to those who ran the prison. But the prisoners also grew their own food, and held various positions within the miniature society that existed there. Some were “trusty shooters”, given the authority to shoot their fellow inmates if they didn’t follow the rules. Parchman Farm also occupies an unusual place in musical history. The inmates there were kept isolated from the outside world, with not even radios permitted. As a result, musical styles in black culture from the nineteenth century that had evolved into new forms on the outside were still preserved in Parchman when John and Alan Lomax and their crew visited there in 1933. Thus, the Lomaxes were able to record and preserve music that provides many clues to the history of the blues.

Bukka White was a prisoner at Parchman Farm, although he wrote the song Parchman Farm Blues a few years after he got out. Nevertheless, the song and White’s style in general represent an early form of the blues, with all of the familiar rules not in place yet. This version was recorded in 1940, and the quality of the recording is typical of the “race records” of that time. Parchman Farm by Mose Allison is clearly based on White’s song, but the transformation is radical enough that Allison is credited as the writer. Allison gives the song his signature jazz-blues treatment, which has influenced many artists, but never been duplicated. From here, many white rock artists who embraced the blues would go on to record the song. Johnny Rivers was still in the early stages of his career in 1965 when he recorded his version, and it predates and may be the template for versions by John Mayall, Johnny Winter, and many others. Rivers was greatly influenced by the blues early in his career. In 1966, Rivers would have his first big hit with Secret Agent Man, and many other pop hits would follow, but he returned to the blues later in his career.

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