Inmates at Mississippi’s Parchman Jail study music : NPR

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Inmate/college students follow blues harmonica throughout a classroom session of the Blues Custom in American Literature course inside Parchman Jail in Mississippi.

John Burnett


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John Burnett


Inmate/college students follow blues harmonica throughout a classroom session of the Blues Custom in American Literature course inside Parchman Jail in Mississippi.

John Burnett

PARCHMAN, Miss. — 9 huge males sit attentively at their desks contained in the Mississippi State Penitentiary—the as soon as notorious jail labor colony referred to as Parchman Farm. They’re carrying green-and-white striped pants, and shirts with “MDOC convict” stenciled on the again, for Mississippi Division of Corrections.

Their crimes vary from drug possession to armed theft to murder. However inside this austere classroom, they’re all faculty college students.

The course is The Blues Custom in American Literature.

They’re exploring how the themes of blues lyrics—unhealthy luck and bother, sexual escapades, and euphoric freedom—get expressed in literary varieties. They’re listening to blues songs by Huge Joe Williams, Ma Rainey, Little Walter, Hound Canine Taylor, and Bessie Smith. They’re studying poetry from Langston Hughes and a play by August Wilson.

The sensation of the blues is all too acquainted

For these inmate college students, the course syllabus could also be new however the feeling of the blues is all too acquainted.

Professor Adam Gussow seems out the window of his classroom contained in the sprawling Mississippi State Penitentiary, positioned on 28 sq. miles of the Mississippi Delta.

John Burnett


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Professor Adam Gussow seems out the window of his classroom contained in the sprawling Mississippi State Penitentiary, positioned on 28 sq. miles of the Mississippi Delta.

John Burnett

“After all, the blues is not only the music, but it surely’s additionally life lived arduous,” says Adam Gussow, professor of English and Southern Research on the College of Mississippi. He’s 65, with a shock of white hair, an intense pedagogical method, and a deep love for the blues. He is taught this course for 25 years, normally to younger undergraduates with restricted life experiences. That is the primary time he is had a classroom filled with grown males who reside in confinement.

“I’ve taught them issues concerning the music, per se, that they might not have recognized,” he says. “However they’ve taken that time period and utilized it to the life challenges they’ve had and the negativity they’ve handled.”

Ledale Williams, 46, hometown Vicksburg, Miss.: “I by no means appeared on the blues the best way I have a look at the blues now. That is trials and tribulations simply being right here for nearly 29 years since I used to be a toddler. So that is the blues in itself.”

Ledale Williams is taking the blues literature class at Parchman for 3 hours of faculty credit score on the College of Mississippi. “Simply being right here for nearly 29 years since I used to be a toddler,” he says, “that is the blues in itself.”

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Mitchell Value, 55, Dallas: “My mom’s the daughter of a sharecropper and that is what they did within the fields, they sung the blues. On the finish of the rows, at break time, after they’re consuming baloney and crackers and cheese. They have been singin’ blues and any person would play the harmonica. It is a part of my historical past as a result of I used to listen to my household discuss this stuff.”

Joseph Westbrooks, 63, Pontotoc, Miss.: “It is extra to it than listenin’ to the blues, whenever you reside the blues. That is our on a regular basis life. You oppressed day by day by being incarcerated.”

On today, Prof. Gussow is instructing Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Have been Watching God, a couple of Black girl’s turbulent coming of age in Thirties rural Florida. The protagonist, Janie, goes by means of three husbands. The final one is a rogue and a blues musician named Tea Cake.

“Tea Cake deepens Janie’s blues emotions,” Gussow lectures. “Tea Cake teaches Janie all concerning the blues in a specific means. He loves her after which he leaves her, after which he comes again. That is an extremely bluesy second and I’ll join it with some music.”

Connecting life’s challenges to music

He opens his laptop computer and clicks on a hyperlink to Bumble Bee Blues, recorded by Memphis Minnie almost 100 years in the past.

Bumblebee, bumblebee, the place you been so lengthy?” she sings, to a haunting acoustic guitar, “You stung me this mornin’, I been stressed all day lengthy.”

Gussow exhorts his college students: “This can be a tune a couple of man placing want in a lady, proper?” The lads reply, “uh-huh,” in realizing voices.

“They’re simply sayin’ that when he go away, she miss him,” says Christopher Bradley, 48, from Moss Level, Miss. “It is like sayin, ‘Hey, I miss my child. I be glad when she get house from work.’ “

Parchman Jail sprawls throughout 28 sq. miles of America’s musical bottomland. That is the Mississippi Delta. Past the tall fences and concertina wire, previous the inexperienced crop fields now tilled by contract farmers, are the tiny agricultural cities that produced a few of the best bluesmen who ever lived: B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son Home, and Robert Johnson.

Professor Adam Gussow has been instructing his blues literature course for 25 years, however by no means earlier than inside a jail. “The blues is not only music,” he says, “but it surely’s additionally life lived arduous.”

John Burnett


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John Burnett


Professor Adam Gussow has been instructing his blues literature course for 25 years, however by no means earlier than inside a jail. “The blues is not only music,” he says, “but it surely’s additionally life lived arduous.”

John Burnett

They knew to remain out of Parchman. Life within the jail farm was brutal. The establishment was arrange in 1901 as an enormous, state-run plantation. Chain gangs did necessary area work. Harsh self-discipline was meted out by the guards and by trusty convicts.

The Delta bluesman Bukka White served time for assault in Parchman and sang about it in his traditional, Parchman Farm Blues, launched in 1940.

We set to work within the mornin’, simply at daybreak of day,

We set to work within the mornin’, simply at daybreak of day,

Simply on the settin’ of the solar, that is when the work is finished.

I am down on ole Parchman farm, I sho’ wanna return house,

I am down on ole Parchman farm, I sho’ wanna return house,

However I hope some day, I’ll overcome.

“The penitentiary right here in Parchman was known as camps for a motive,” says inmate Mitchell Value, who remembers these occasions. “They have been work camps which you’d say symbolizes slave camps. They put them right here to choose cotton and they’d whip them with precise whips.”

Melvin Johnson, 62, Jackson, Miss., was additionally doing time again in these days.

“About 5:30, you gotta be goin’ on the market to that area,” he says. “Someday it is so chilly on the market they do not care. All they need you to do is choose that cotton. You gon’ go on the market or else. And someday it so scorching there you cross out. They did not care.”

Compelled farm labor at Parchman ended within the mid-2000s. However issues persist.

Final yr, the U.S. Justice Division launched outcomes of an investigation that “uncovered proof of systemic violations which have generated a violent and unsafe atmosphere for individuals incarcerated at Parchman.” A spokesman for the Mississippi Division of Corrections mentioned that report doesn’t replicate improved circumstances on the jail lately. He pointed to accreditation in January by the American Correctional Affiliation—the first time in 9 years.

Utilizing training to re-enter society

The College of Mississippi has provided faculty programs inside Parchman on Shakespeare, Mississippi writers, the civil rights motion, and now, the blues. The award-winning program is known as the Jail-to-School Pipeline.

Patrick Alexander, affiliate professor of English and African American Research at Ole Miss, is the program’s director and co-founder. He says training can play a job in how nicely an offender does after they re-enter society.

“We’ve got one pupil who’s gone to Mississippi School,” Alexander says, “and he traces not simply the assignments and the books however the alternative to be seen as a pacesetter [in the classroom]. One thing that isn’t essentially going to occur whenever you’re inside Parchman.”

These college students will don caps and robes in mid-Might and attend a commencement ceremony contained in the jail for finishing the three course hours.

The Hohner Firm donated blues harmonicas to Professor Gussow’s college students, however they’ll solely follow as soon as every week in school. They’re forbidden to take the harmonicas again to their dwelling quarters.

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The Hohner Firm donated blues harmonicas to Professor Gussow’s college students, however they’ll solely follow as soon as every week in school. They’re forbidden to take the harmonicas again to their dwelling quarters.

John Burnett

Along with studying concerning the blues literary custom, they get a style of taking part in the blues. The scholars get harmonica classes on Blues Harps donated by the Hohner Firm. However they cannot take their mouth harps again to their dwelling quarters in order that they must follow in school. Gussow not solely has a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, however he’s a world-class harmonica participant who teamed up with bluesman Sterling “Mr. Devil” Magee for greater than three many years.

“I am gonna faucet my foot and I am gonna take the 4 draw. Can all people go…” …he performs a observe and the scholars comply with. He performs one other observe and the scholars comply with. Fairly quickly they’re tooting a primitive riff.

“All proper, give yourselves a spherical of applause!” Gussow says with amusing. “That is one of the best we have accomplished.”

A muscular man with a white goatee and glasses immediately stands up out of his desk behind class. Arthur Gentry, 65, from Houston, has been locked up at Parchman for greater than 4 many years. In a husky voice, he breaks right into a spontaneous model of the Parchman Jail Blues, respiration new life and new ache right into a venerable musical custom.

I obtained the penitentiary blues,

day in and time out,

all by means of the evening,

I obtained the blues,

all of us obtained the blues.

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