On an internet rabbit trail, I found a vintage documentary produced by my personal hero Pete Seeger called Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison (1966, 29mins). Pete, his wife Toshi, his son Daniel, and friend Bruce Jackson went to an African American prison work camp in Huntsville, Texas (outside Houston) to record the spiritual-like songs of the prisoners in the work camp.
The full 29 minute film feels somewhat like a voyeuristic or exploitative look into these men’s troubled lives. But understanding Pete Seeger’s life mission of celebrating folk music, I get a sense that it’s a testament to the power of community-born songs to lift the spirits of those downtrodden and oppressed. And for me, this documentary captured part of Texas history that I had never heard about and feel would have otherwise been (white-)washed away.
This video led me to an article on The Marshall Project about Prison Plantations which highlights Bruce Jackson’s work over forty years in documenting Texas prison farms. Jackson connects the dots that these prison farms, now owned by the state, were once family-owned slave plantations. This arrests me. The horrifying parts of history repeat themselves too, I guess.
No doubt some of these prisoners singing beautiful songs did atrocious crimes, like J.B. Smith from Ramsey Prison Farm in Rosharon, Texas who was guilty of murding his wife. But contextually setting the stage to the Houston area in the 1960s around the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s not hard to imagine that some of these men were guilty of something else: being poor and black.
It’s difficult to watch these men in the Seegers’ film chop wood and hammer dirt. These men endured years of labor. Their songs bide the time and fill the air with sorrow and beauty. My spirit is moved by their rendition of the classic gospel tune “Down By The Riverside” (13:36). The pounding of the dirt in the Texas heat, the singing of white robes while dressed in white prison uniforms, the proclamations of peace instead of war… it touches nearly every sense I have.