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If anybody asks you, butcher man, where have you been? Show 'em that long-bladed knife; tell 'em you been butcherin' out in the slaughter pen - Memphis Minnie, My Butcher Man

Author Topic: Angola Prisoners Blues  (Read 1710 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Angola Prisoners Blues
« on: May 29, 2006, 12:14:03 AM »
Yesterday I was asked to check something in the booklet that came with the British release of Angola Prisoners Blues and inside the sleeve there was also a sheet torn from Jazz Journal October 1960 (p17/18). I thought what it contained might find interest here.

BLUES ON RECORD PART 21
Derrick Stewart-Baxter

The reviewing of jazz records does not come within the scope of this column, for which small mercy I am truly thankful. It appears to me that the jazz situation is a rather dismal one. Quality has given way to quantity, and the shops are full of LP's and EP's, most of which are of a depressing mediocrity.

Happily, the blues and folk-song enthusiast is in a much better position. He, at least, has never had it so good. I can remember when I first started writing for this magazine, some ten years ago, there was little of interest in the catalogues?an odd Bessie Smith and a Sleepy John Estes, perhaps, but these were the high spots in an otherwise unrewarding list. Today it is a different story. Apart from the deletion by Decca of the Archives LP's, which was a serious blow, the collector has a wonderful selection from which to choose? from the early country blues of such men as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake and Ramblin' Thomas to the jazz based and exciting singing of Jimmy Rushing and Joe Turner. He can, if he has the money, build himself a very representative collection of all that is best in blues.

The future, too, is rosy?but it is to the small private labels, run by jazz lovers, to whom we must increasingly turn for our discs. The owners of these companies spare no effort to obtain the very best for our enjoyment. In the past few months the independents have given us some magnificent LP's, ranging from reissues of some of the grand old-timers to fresh recordings of the younger singers, many of whom are the equal of the men of an earlier era. The last few months alone has seen the following records on the market: The Rooster Crowed In England by Lightnin' Hopkins (Dobells 77), Blues From East Texas by Lightnin' Hopkins and his brother Joel (Heritage HLP 1001) and Message From New Orleans by Snooks Eaglin (Heritage HLP 1002). In fairness to the major companies I must also mention Blues Fell This Morning (Philips BBL 7369), Paul Oliver's personal choice to illustrate his book of the same name. There is, of course, the American Folkways recordings which can now be obtained from many specialist shops, and the best of these LP's will be reviewed in this column in the near future.

As the flow of blues issues shows no sign of drying up, I have decided once again to suspend my alphabetical listing in order to make room for two more great LP's from the private labels. They are: Angola Prisoner's Blues (Collector JGN 1003) and A Treasury of Field Recordings (77-LA-12-2). Both discs are important enough to deserve a full article, but space difficulties preclude this, so my reviews must be brief and to the point. Angola is a truly magnificent disc. All tracks were recorded in the Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana. Three convicts are represented here: Guitar Robert Welch No. 3-9811, Hogman Matthew Maxey No. 4-6065 and, perhaps the best of the three, Robert Pete Williams No. 4-6506. Williams gets 5 tracks (Levee Camp Blues, Prisoner's Talking Blues, Motherless Children Have A Hard Time, Some Got Six Months and Lonesome Blues) while Welch and Maxey have two apiece; Electric Chair Blues, Backwater Blue (Welch) Stagolee and Black Night Fallin' (Maxey).

These are the raw blues, sung with great emotion by men serving long sentences for various crimes. Williams is in for life on a murder charge. There is nothing smooth or slick about this wonderful singer, and at times his passionate singing becomes almost unbearably tragic. I cannot imagine anyone not being moved by his awe-inspiring Prisoner's Talking Blues, which is halftalked, half-sung, backed by simple but effective guitar figures. As Dr Harry Oster and Richard Allen say in their notes: "The despair of the prisoner who is in for life has never been better captured than in Williams' Prisoners Talking Blues...Robert Pete describes his physical decline and his soul sorrow with a poignancy which makes None But the Lonely Heart seem gay."

I find Some Got Six Months equally fine, and such lines as?

Some got six months, some got a solid year,
But me and by buddy, we got life time here

?remind me of Jesse James' superb Lonesome Day Blues. It would appear that either Williams has heard this record, or that these lines are traditional to Negro prisoners, for James, too, was a convict.

Maxey sings Stagolee very well indeed, but again it is a blues of a much grimmer nature which arrests the attention?Black Night Blues. Some of the lyrics of this are also worth quoting:

Black night fallin', my pains comin' down again,
Oh, oh black night fallin' my pains comin' down again,

Oh, I feel so lonesome, oh I ain't got no frien'
Oh sheets and pillow cases torn all to pieces,
baby blood stain all over the wall

Mm, sheets and pillows torn all to pieces,
baby, and blood stain all over the wall
Oh Lord, I wasn't aimin' when I left baby,
and the telephone wasn't in the hall.

Welch is a good guitarist and his Electric Chair is a fine piece, and these lines give a vivid picture of the prisoner's thoughts:

Wonder why they electrocute a man at one o'clock hour at night? (twice).
The current much stronger, people turn out all the light.

I cannot praise this LP too highly. It is an essential buy for the blues lover, and together with "Murderer's Home" makes a wonderful set.

A Treasury of Field Recordings is a history of folk song in and around Texas and comes with a very interesting 60 page booklet. There are songs of all kinds by white and coloured singers, all of them quite wonderful.

Many readers may feel that the white singers would have been better on a separate LP, and as I like the Negro shouters best, I would be inclined to agree. Nevertheless, these artists are so good that I find myself playing all tracks equally. Joel and Lightnin' appear on two tracks?Joel sings Good Times Here, Better Times Down The Road and Lightnin' Corrine Corrina. Both are excellent. The whole collection has been compiled by Mack McCormick and as this man knows so much about the subject the result is a record of lasting value to all who love real folk art. John Lomax Jr (who sings Grey Goose in the album) has the last word on this project, when he writes in the booklet:

"This is one good, long look at the guts of America?songs sung by the people who make them up and pass them along, showing the character of themselves, the flavour and spirit of their lives, singing about things that bear on their thoughts...courting...cattle herding...murder...atomic energy... hunting...growing old...whiffin' cocaine... being in love and doing something about it...things that are under people's skin and naturally come out in their songs."

Yes, there is a wealth of song, from chain gang chant to cowboy ballad, from the blues to the bawdy ditty, all of them brimming full of life. In short, this volume is rightly called a "treasury".