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Songs From Longtime Men

Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs from Texas Prisons. Collected and edited by Bruce Jackson. Harvard University Press, 326 pp., $14.95

By Henry W. Mcgee. iii

We didn't ride to work. We walked or ran. Mosdy run. Have shotguns on the horses as well as pistols. You get worked to death or beat to death. That's why we sang so many of these songs. We would work together and help ourselves as well as help our fellow man.

THE VOICE CRIES OUT from hell, the hell of a Texas prison camp, describing how he was able to survive, to get by, to live. A song is such a simple mechanism, but it gives a sense of time to men in a timeless situation; it allows them to order their lives in an environment that attempts to usurp that prerogative.

They are beautiful songs with their roots in the darkest and most beautiful parts of Africa. They are songs that race back to a time when there was no white man, no whip, no shotgun. They are songs that depict the misery and joy of the human condition, they sound a note of freedom and life in the face of imprisonment and death.

Bruce Jackson, a professor of English at SUNY Buffalo and a former member of the Society of Fellows has collected 55 of the worksongs from Texas prison camps. Together they provide a tragically revealing picture of the plight of blacks in prison camps.

Jackson has spent the last decade travelling to the 14 prisons under the jurisdiction of the Texas Department of Corrections. Armed with his tape recorder and camera, Jackson grasped what life is like for prisoners like Chinaman, Ten-Four. Bacon and Porkchop, Lightnin' and Cowboy. They told him their story and sang him their songs and he was able to gain an unusual insight into the mechanisms of survival contained in the rhythmic melodies.

Jackson explains that the worksongs serve a number of purposes: they supply a rhythm for work as well as making the tasks more pleasant, they offer an outlet for the prisoners' anger and frustration, and perhaps most importantly, they change the worker's frame of reference. By regulating the pace of the wor himself, rather than following the cadences of the guards, the prisoner makes the work his, when in reality it is not.

By spending so much time with the prisoners, Jackson gained an uncanny insight into their motivations. Given prison conditions, for example, the outside observer finds it difficult to explain why the inmates compete fiercely for the recognition of being the best worker. But after talking with the prisoners, Jackson concludes:

"Given a situation in which one is required to work, one co-opts it partially and finds the urge to be as good as one can. It isn't so much the urge to please the guards, but rather the natural movement among Americans for stratification even within a rigidly defined stratum."

To enable the reader to understand the songs, Jackson first presents excerpts from interviews he conducted with the prisoners. He then gives a short interpretive history of the prison system and how the songs developed in reaction to it. He follows with his photographic essay on the camps--pictures of chain gangs marching on dusty roads driven by fat sheriffs and photographs of strong black inmates picking cotton. He concludes with the songs, certainly the most instructive part of the book.

Jackson is not afraid to employ several academic disciplines to help in an interpretation of the songs: however, this sometimes leads him to depart from his highly readable style and utilize instead highly technical language comprehensible only to the scholar. But as Jackson points out, no amount of sociological or musicological discussion could obscure the vivid portraits painted by the songs themselves.

"Please Have Mercy on a Longtime Man," provides a particularly vivid portrait of prison camp life:

Well I went to the Captain, with my hat in my hand.

Said, "A Lordy, have mercy, on a longtime man."

Well he looked at me, and he spit on the ground.

Says, "I'll have mercy, when I drive you down."

Fortunately, as Jackson points out. Texas prisons are being reformed and the conditions that gave impetus to these songs are rapidly disappearing. The prisoners don't sing the songs as often as they used to, and only the older inmates remember the days when men would sever their Achilles tendons in order to avoid slave labor in the cane and cotton fields. By recording the stories and songs of the prisoners, Jackson has provided a valuable record of one of the bleaker chapters in American history.

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