Deep River Of Song: Big Brazos Texas Prison Recordings, 1933-34 (Rounder)
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Sept. 29, 2000
Deep River Of Song: Big Brazos
Texas Prison Recordings, 1933-34 (Rounder)Five tracks into this fascinating but haunting collection of Texas prison songs, I flashed back to Sun Ra and his Arkestra's last Austin performance at Liberty Lunch in the early Nineties. These jazz avant-gardists ended their set with a tune extolling the virtues of interplanetary space travel that ultimately broke down into a hip, syncopated call-and-response refrain that sounded uncannily like "Long John," a timeless tree-cutting song chronicling the escapades of a famous and wily folk hero, sung here by prisoner Lightnin' Washington and fellow inmates at Darrington State Farm. Who says the Texas prison system isn't otherworldly? Be that as it may, at this point it's common knowledge that the work songs and field hollers of African slaves in America are the root source of what evolved first into blues, then early jazz and gospel forms, and eventually into an astonishing array of related but differing styles that encompass most of what is now American popular music. A good introduction into the rich vein of these seminal folk songs and their African-derived stylings is this informatively annotated compilation of field recordings from East Texas prison farms, made by the renowned father-and-son team of John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress as part of their extensive and inspired documentation of black roots music throughout the American South and the Caribbean. It stands as a chilling glimpse into a chapter of our social history in which extreme hardship and cruelty begat an inspired legacy of profound and lasting beauty. Stripped of all pretense, there's incredible poignancy in these songs whose primary purpose was the survival of body and spirit. Within the cadences, rhythms, dirges, vocal interplay, and improvisations, one can hear the essence of blues, R&B, gospel, doo-wop, jazz, and even rap. If you're looking for the germination of much of American music, this would be a good place to start.