Song of the Week: “Rosie’s” Ghost

So about last week…

I didn’t post, I know. In an attempt to emulate the role models I grew up with–mostly television newscasters–I was initially going to ignore it and go about my business like nothing happened. But then Fox News actually admitted to a factual error, and I realized that I could deny it no longer. So today, I stand before you to say: Mercury is in retrograde. Anything can happen. Sorry, guys.

Mandy Moore Mercury Retrograde Song of the Week

Mandy Moore made me do it.

Anyway, before moving on to some new exciting material, I realized in the previous article I wrote on the legacy of Alan Lomax that I failed to carry out my due diligence of demonstrating just how influential his recordings continue to be and (quite often) how awesome they sound. So for January’s final Song of the Week, we’re tying up some loose ends and taking a good hard look at a song that I can’t go a week without playing and that a former girlfriend once described as “terrifying.” And here it is:

Prison Songs Alan Lomax Song of the Week

Hearing a song–no, an artifact–like this, I feel, invokes a lot of associations from your average American listener, even subconsciously: the history of Gospel music and R&B, the traces of an oppressive social history tainted by racism, music’s uncanny ability to bring to life an unsettling and indomitable spirit, etc. And, as we’ll see, they’re right, but there’s more.

Lomax came across this gem of a piece at an institution with which he had an ironically very extensive and fruitful relationship: the Mississippi State Penitentiary, popularly (if you can call it that) known as Parchman Farm.

Parchman Farm Song of the Week

What’s not to like?

Prisons in America were notorious for adamantly refusing to adopt the use of any technology that looked more complicated than a can opener, due to a theoretically endless supply of labor. Hence, the remedial work at Parchman that the prisoners were set about–in segregated units, mind you–involved some themes pretty familiar to the American South: picking cotton as early as 4:00 AM, unceasing surveillance by white guards on horseback, and bloodhounds and German shepherds used to track down escaped prisoners. Appropriate, considering that the prison itself was the site of a former plantation.

While most people would reasonably never want to lay eyes on such a gruesome anachronism, the wafting stenches of slavery’s hand attracted John Lomax and his inquisitive 17-year-old son, Alan, like moths to the flame. Lomax the elder would be the first one to admit that the idea of prison fascinated him, having grown up with the anecdotes and images of men broken by the hard labor and hot sun, living day to day in isolation “under the jail.” Romantic notions aside, John understood that such a system carried with it a singular tradition that those on the outside were insulated from; or in John Szwed’s words, “an awful dignity” in knowledge and songs passed down from veteran inmates to their successors.

John Lomax Song of the Week

Crafty ol’ Texan, isn’ he?

By then a tired 65 years old, John Lomax nonetheless pushed forward to go on a last collecting roundup of sorts, a tour of the major Southern prisons with the hope capturing something that–in the prisoners’ total isolation–may have been the closest thing to the sounds of slavery that 20th century America could provide. The trip was also born partly out of economic necessity (this was the Depression, after all, and nobody writes checks like the Library of Congress).

With Lomax the younger in tow as an assistant/apprentice, the two set off in the late spring of 1933. They reached Parchman, Mississippi on August 8th.

“Rosie” was not recorded then. Not for nothin’, though; they did find this guy in Angola:

Lead Belly performing for his wife, Lethe.

No, time would have to wait for another 17 years, when Alan finally returned to the farm in  December of 1947, to see if and how the songs had changed at all. By then the tensions between Alan and his father had grown such that their correspondence via post had essentially dried up. (Alan’s communist sympathies didn’t sit well with his old-school old man; the stresses of the previous prison tour and Alan’s consistently poor performance in academia didn’t help either.) Alan Lomax Guitar Song of the Week

For Alan, the return to Parchman may have felt like a re-take, now with a more refined ear and decades of experience to know something great when he heard it, and to grab it before it flew away.

Such preparation came in handy when a blizzard rolled through the farm, the men having to work in six inches of snow. Embittered and led by one only known as S.B., the prisoners, “while their axe blades glittered blue in the wintry light… bawled out their ironic complaint,” Lomax recalled. “Rosie” is the document of that stoic protest.

Be my woman, gal, I’ll be your man. (x3)
Everyday’s Sunday, dollar in your hand.
In your hand, Lordy, in your hand.
Everyday’s Sunday, dollar in your hand.

Stick to the promise, girl, that you made me. (x3)
Won’t get married ’til-uh I go free.
I go free, Lordy, I go free.
Won’t get married ’til-uh I go free.

Well Rosie, hold on gal. (x2)
We she walks she reel and walks behind. (x2)
Ain’t that enough to worry convict’s mind. (x2)
Well Rosie, hold on gal. (x2)

Several elements make this a fascinating excerpt of prison repertoire. First, the song very easily demonstrates how the prisoners’ singing did actually have a pragmatic function, quite literally hitting you over the head as all the chain gang’s axes fall as a unit on the downbeats. An effective organizing tool, this likely explains why the wardens permitted the songs be sung and didn’t think much of it beyond that, clearly not realizing them to be the trojan horses they really were: a hidden way of commenting upon the horrific situation in which the inmates, haunted by the color of their skin and the faceless social order that punished them for it, found themselves.

If anything, this probably was what my girlfriend was getting at. The weight of the recording has little-to-nothing to do with the actual lyrical content (a girl wasn’t faithful to her beau in prison; wonder why?), but everything to do with overwhelming realness of it.

Let’s talk about that for a second, shall we? You know how Bruce Springsteen made his name as a kind of blue collar bard, but somehow you know he’s not working at a carwash when he’s not making lukewarm records?

Exactly.

Nothing against the Boss, but his persona is, really, just that. And that’s fine; it points to a never-ending tradition of influential artists striking a pose or adopting an image. It’s not even an issue; we’re used to it, and in a way, we kind of expect it.

Not so with “Rosie.” No, those are real axes hitting the earth, and the actual cries of real ordinary people caught in a supremely fucked up situation.

Parchman Farm Prisoner Song of the Week

A not-so-gentle reminder.

The recognition that things like this actually happened channels something like what Edmund Burke was trying to describe in his notion of “sublime terror,” the experience of something so painful (or the witnessing thereof) that it leaves you literally shaking with an emotion you didn’t know was yours. Those men, all of them dead–their ghosts lurk in that record, where their cries are eternal, trying to wake themselves and us from that nightmare of history.

Could’ve been worse, I guess. This guy could’ve been their music teacher:

Vern Schillinger Song of the Week

Did you know Fletcher was actually a Nazi?

Interestingly enough, “Rosie” ended up having a direct and significant impact on the emerging complex of pop music, though decades later. Thanks to NYU Adjunct Professor of Music Technology Ethan Hein, I was surprised to learn that, apparently, The Animals rewrote and adapted the chain gang song to make “Inside Looking Out”:

Aaaannnd that because of subsequent covers and samples, Lomax is somehow a legal co-author of a Jay-Z single, but that's beside the point...

Undeniably catchy, squeaky clean, and whiter than afternoon tea, the song takes on a bizarre aural presence with its actual source material in mind. Though it’s hidden, it cannot be erased. It hammers into us like axes on a downbeat that no matter how far time removes us from it, the music of this country (and by way of cultural imperialism, the whole world) that everybody innocuously craves and loves was built upon the pain and sweat of invisible men and women, their suffering reverberating through history and into our ears.

And the ghost lingers on…

For more information about Parchman Farm and its lasting musical influence, definitely check out my favorite musical archeologists, Dust-to-Digital, and their box set on the Lomaxes’ history at the farm, filled with photographs, records, and Alan’s essays. To end, let’s take a quick look at some more contemporary prison music. Happy February.

This entry was posted in Song of the Week. Bookmark the permalink.