Friday, April 13, 2012

Work-songs In A Texas Prison

"I'd never seen so much work did, so many different things did with a hoe in all of my life when I come in prison. Man, we'd even build roads with the hoes, just hoes alone, we'd build roads." -- unidentified inmate

Filmed by Toshi and Pete Seeger at the Ellis Unit of the Dept of Correction, Huntsville with additional commentary by Bruce Jackson and W.D.Alexander. Described as "an unrehearsed recording of prisoners at work in the grounds of the high-security penitentiary where they keep up their work-song tradition, chopping down trees and hoeing in the fields, under the ever watchful eye of the armed horse-mounted guards". Includes I aint going to study war no more (Down by the Riverside) (Gift of Pete Seeger) (B&W 1966/ 28 mins)

Unlike many prisons in the north were men often spend most of their days sitting around in cells, the inmates worked in Texas prisons. In the old days, work in a field sometimes amounted to a death sentence by degree. The guards were brutal, the days lasted from dawn to dark, the work-pace was vicious. But Texas now has the most progressive of the southern prison systems, and those old days are gone. Even so, some of the negro inmates maintain a tradition that developed them to help a man survive; the prison work song.

Very soon they used the work song, they don't use the work songs in the field chopping because they don't chop, they don't work the fields now like they used to work, well they have... they have tractors now to do the work that we did with hoes. The tractor supply was close to eliminating a lot of our work, so the turnrows we don't have to clean them no more becuase it got craters that would grade off the turnrow[17]. Now you'd have to chop a row, back up, and the squad would line up to clean off the turnrow and that called for a lot of chopping in the high grass on the back of the turnrow, probably clear across the next ditch. Well everybody would get together in union, in harmony, and make the work seem easy even when it's hard when they're singing.




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