Songs From The Chain Gang

Rhythm is essential to dance, rap, sing or play music. It was also vital to everyday survival for inmates at the Texas prisons where father-and-son ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax recorded this riveting collection of work songs in 1933 and '34.

As Bruce Jackson states in his intelligently written liner notes, most Texas prisons of that era had farms maintained by gangs of inmates. Convicts who fell out of rhythm with their work gang risked losing a limb to a stray ax. Those who worked too slowly were whipped, clubbed or worse by ruthless prison guards. As it had been for plantation slaves a century earlier, singing was the predominantly African-American prisoners' lifeline to hope, and keeping steady rhythm was their best defense against injury and death.

We learn that the ferociously sung "Long John" (RealAudio excerpt), led by Lightnin' Washington, is a "tree-cutting" song. Washington also leads "Stewball" (RealAudio excerpt) — an Irish paean to a racehorse which sounds considerably less carefree than the Tarbox Ramblers' recent version of the tune. On "Old Rattler" (RealAudio excerpt), frank lyrics decrying racial injustice and the near-gospel singing of Moses "Clear Rock" Platt and James "Iron Head" Baker paint quite a different picture from the less political version led by August "Track Horse" Haggerty.

Most of the 20 songs here are call-and-response numbers, though "Mama, Mama" (RealAudio excerpt), sung by Haggerty, is a melodic, sorrowful exception. In addition to being of obvious interest to academics interested in the history of folk, blues and social justice, this is genuinely compelling music, as well.