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Gentlemen: whenever you see a great big overgrown buck sitting at the mouth of some holler, or at the forks of some road, with a big slouch hat on, a blue celluloid collar, a celluloid, artificial red rose in his coat lapel, a banjo strung across his breast, and a-pickin' of Sourwood Mountain, fine that man, gentlemen, fine him! For if he hasn't already done something, he's a-going to - Josiah Combs, quoted in Old-Time Mountain Banjo

Author Topic: Angola Prisoners' Blues  (Read 2129 times)

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Offline Slack

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Angola Prisoners' Blues
« on: November 17, 2011, 06:23:05 PM »
Angola Prisoners' Blues
Written by John Miller

Angola Prisoners' Blues--Arhoolie CD 419       

This CD was recorded by Dr. Harry Oster at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana in the 1950s.  Arhoolie has released two other CDs of material recorded by Dr. Oster at Angola in the same period, one focusing on work songs and the other on spirituals. 

  The program starts with Robert Pete Williams performing his "Prisoner's Talking Blues", a free-associated recitation over riffing in D on Dr. Oster's twelve-string guitar.  Robert Pete expressed himself so poetically in the normal course of affairs that it is hard to believe he didn't plan out lines like:  "I don't keep well no more.  I keeps sickly.I takes a lot of medicine, but it looks like it don't do no good.  All I have to do is pray; that's the only thing'll help me here.  One foot in the grave, look like, and the other'un out.  Sometime looks like my best day gotta be my last day."

Matthew "Hogman" Maxey follows with a version of "Stagolee", likewise played on Dr. Oster's twelve-string.  Hogman's monicker derived apparently from his mistaken notion as a child that he was a hog doctor.  His version of "Stagolee" is terrific.  Played in E standard, it shares much of the same vocal phrasing as Lloyd Price's popular version from the '50s, but Hogman's time is so driving, fierce really, that the song is given an entirely different feel.  His powerful monotonic bass and one-chord approach (with a hint of a IV chord) remind me of Mance Lipscomb's song "Freddie", from his first album.

Robert "Guitar" Welch, an older man, born in 1896, weighs in next with his version of "Electric Chair Blues", played in Spanish tuning.  Welch's playing is fascinating, because it shows influences of Charlie Patton's Spanish canon as well as Son House's "Special Rider Blues" and some later musicians.  Hogman offers "Black Night Is Falling" in E standard (as are all his tunes on the CD).  Robert Pete does a really spooky version of "Some Got 6 Months" in Dropped D, and an incredibly funky "I'm Lonesome Blues" (which he recorded elsewhere as "Poor Bob's Blues") in A standard.  Guitar Welch does a slide version of "I'm Gonna Leave You, Mama" in Vastapol, and it has something of the sound of a slowed down Kokomo Arnold.
A loose configuration of prisoners sings "Angola Bound".  The same group sings the same melody with different lyrics as "Rise And Fly" on the Angola Spirituals CD.  There are numbers by female inmates, as well.  Clara Young, who has an unbelievably great voice, sings "The Soldier's Plea", an unusual story song or ballad in the Old English sense.  Odea Matthews, who sounds like an older woman, also an excellent singer, performs "The Moon Is Rising", accompanied by her sewing machine.  Thelma Mae Joseph sings "I'm Still In Love With You" (actually Budd Johnson's classic "Since I Fell For You") from the prison laundry  She sounds very young, like a fourteen-year-old.  A vocal group does a nicely loose and pretty Doo-Wop version of "I Miss You So", and Butterbeans does a recitation/toast entitled "Hello Sue" that is similar to ones that some of you may have heard John Dee Holman do at Port Townsend the summer before last.

Hogman does "Fast Life Women" with a great world-weary vocal, and Guitar Welch does "61 Highway Blues".  Otis Webster starts out on "Careless Love" and morphs it into "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean"; I had never noticed the similarity in the two songs before.  Webster then accompanies the great singer, Roosevelt Charles, on "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean", called "Have You Ever Heard The Churchbells Tone" here.  The program concludes with Roosevelt Charles recounting the tale of "The Strike At Camp One",  a story of a prison revolt which actually ended up resulting in better conditions for the prisoners.  Mr. Charles deep speaking voice pulls you right into the story.

I am glad that Dr. Oster and Chris Strachwitz took a fairly relaxed definition of what constitutes a Blues for the purposes of putting this program together, because the variety in the program makes it all the more dynamic.  If you like the sound of good strong "country" players and singers of Country Blues, you will find much to admire on this CD.   

PROGRAM:  Prisoner's Talking Blues--Robert Pete Williams; Stagolee--Hogman Maxey; Electric Chair Blues--Guitar Welch; Black Night Is Fallin'--Hogman Maxey; Some Got Six Months--Robert Pete Williams; I'm Gonna Leave You Mama--Guitar Welch; I'm Lonesome Blues--Robert Pete Williams; Angola Bound--A Capella Group; Worried Blues--Hogman Maxey; Josephine--Guitar Welch; Soldier's Plea--Clara Young; The Moon Is Rising--Odea Mathews; I'm Still In Love With You--Thelma Mae Joseph; I Miss You So--Vocal Group; Hello, Sue--Butterbeans; Fast Life Woman--Hogman Maxey; Careless Love--Otis Webster; Have You Ever Heard The Church Bells Tone--Roosevelt Charles & Otis Webster; 61 Highway--Guitar Welch; Strike At Camp 1--Roosevelt Charles
« Last Edit: December 13, 2014, 08:31:12 AM by Slack »


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