C.B. and Ten Others With Axes “Rosie” (African American Prison Song) [Music/Track]

Year: 1947 (Released 1958)
Genre: Traditional/Call and Response/African American Prison Song
From: The albumNegro Prison Songs

I want to highlight a prison work song, and I chose one of my favourite “Rosie”. It was recorded in 1947, but released on vinyl for the first time in 1958. All credits to those men from Mississippi State Penitentiary’s Parchman work camp who were recorded singing this song. Thanks also to Alan Lomax for collecting this song, as he have done with his many field recording. I can really hear the blood, sweat and pain from these men, and a not such a far fetched hunch is that several of them where innocent.

…Mississippi’s Parchman Farm included 15 labor camps, where inmates were contracted out to chop trees and wood, hoe, lay track, cut cane, plough fields, shovel gravel, and perform other hard labor that benefited both the industries and the State that sold them. John and Alan Lomax had gone to Southern prisons in the early 1930s, looking for songs that might not have been touched by the outside world. According to Alan Lomax, “These songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River … They tell us the story of the slave gang, the sharecropper system, the lawless work camp, the chain gang, the pen.” Alan Lomax went to the Parchman labor prisons in 1947 and 1948, and found the equivalent of a plantation mind-set, with prisoners enduring harsh beatings and other forms of brutal and violent treatment. For this reason, it would be ten years before he released the first volume of prison songs.

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Songs like “Rosie” not only coordinated the dangerous teamwork of several men chopping trees but also made the workers more productive and helped the time pass. As with slave songs, the work songs also helped prisoners give vent to intense pent-up feelings, whether the words were specifically about that or not. Such singing and chanting can also ease the spirit, bring harmony to the group, and can even bring some pleasure to the moment. “Rosie” must have been a well-known prison work song, since Lomax found former prisoners who still knew it in the 1970s. This recording was made onsite at the prison, and is sung by inmates who actually used it in their work gangs.”…