May 18, 2024

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CD review: Parchman Prison Prayer – Some Mississippi Sunday Morning – 2023: Video, CD cover

Parchman Prison is a notorious, 28 acre prison farm in Mississippi, not far from Clarksdale. In February 2023, the three year plus approval process to record prisoners singing finally made its’ way through a sea of bureaucracy and was approved for a short notice visit for Grammy winner Ian Brennan to record at the facility. Alan Lomax first visited there in 1933 and returned many times to record music there. Brennan’s visit was the first in many years.

The prison had had some notable music figures as inmates since its’ 1901 establishment. Son House, Booker “Bukka” White, Mose Allison, R. L. Burnside, John “Big Bad Smitty” Smith, Terry “Big T” Williams, Elvis’s father Vernon Presley and, reportedly, Aleck “Rice” Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2) all did time there. The prison has been the subject of many blues songs including “When Can I Change My Clothes” and “Parchman Farm Blues” by Bukka White and Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm” which has been done by Johnny Winter, John Mayall and many others.

Brennan was given a short window of opportunity to record. He hurriedly caught a red eye flight and the chaplains of the prison whipped up a special service of prisoners who normally sang and performed at about a dozen various services held at the prison each Sunday. The prisoners were a bit shy and reticent at first, but finally opened up and finally laid down acapella tracks, sometimes doing more than one take.

The finale was a completely unplanned musical ensemble, a “full-band free for all as the musicians traded off the chapel’s instruments on-the-fly.” Brennan noted, “I had a blind faith that the voices would be compelling. But the men exceeded my expectations astronomically with the depth and nuance – and often downright virtuosity – of their singing.”

The album begins with “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” featuring the 29 year old prisoner L. Stevenson.  It is a superb song of praise. This rendition, done acapella, is raw and cutting. One can feel the singers’ emotion in his voice.

Next is “I Give Myself Away, So You Can Use Me” This is a haunting spiritual done simply with solo voice and piano. Later in the cut, harmonies and other voices join in. It is a moving and touching prayer delivered with conviction and emotion. The singer and pianist chose to remain anonymous.

Kyles is featured on “Break Every Chain.” He is a 52 year old inmate; the opening note of this song told me this was going to be a spiritually enlightening experience. Kyles sings with power and true feeling as he tells us of escaping the chains that bind us.

“Jesus, Every Day Your Name is the Same” features the 73 year old C.S. Deloch backed by singers, organ and the rest of a band. Not even a minute and a half long, it left me wanting more. It’s a wonderful Gospel number.

“Step into the Water” is performed by N. Peterson (aged 63) with many hands clapping to keep the beat. Another outstanding spiritual piece!

Sixty year old M. Palmer is up next with “Solve My Need.” His deep bass voice emanates from the bottom of his soul and reaches down to the bottom of the listener’s soul. Recorded with some reverb, it is gripping and truly haunting. I don’t believe I have ever heard a deeper voice. It was amazing!

“Falling in Love with Jesus Was the Best Thing I’ve Ever Done” is performed by A. Warren, a younger inmate aged 28.  He knocks on a wooden surface to provide percussive accompaniment and his performance is gripping and moving.

‘You Did Not Leave Me, You Bless Me Still” is next, a great spiritual by 63 year old J. Sherman. His voice quivers with great feeling as he sings praises to the Lord. He fades out and back in as he finishes this impressive performance. The bass voice behind his (obvious Palmer’s) offers an interesting backdrop. A second version of the song is included in the download I got with just Sherman’s vocals. Both were equally impressive.

Up next is “If I Couldn’t Say One Word, I’ll Just Wave My Hand.”  It features the choir band and backing singers with L. Brown, age 36, up front. Guitar and piano along with percussion are in the forefront as Brown sings with an amazing depth of emotion.

Stevenson returns next with “I Gotta Run” featuring hand clapping and some more great vocal work. Another inspiring performance.

“Hosanna” is sung by L. Brown (age 36) with the voice of an angel. He sings acapella and delivers a truly memorable cut for us.

Mixing Gospel and rap we next have “Locked Down, Mama Prays for Me” with 33 year old Robinson and singer A. Warren from an earlier track. A gospel tune with a sacred rap laid over it, the duo hits a spiritual home run with this one.

“It’s in My Heart” has the track 3 artist M. Kyles giving us another beautiful cut with his excellent voice. He is amazing.

“I’m Still Here: has D. Thomas (age 30) giving his emotive vocal solo with some echoed responses to his calls.  It’s another great track.

“Lay My Burden Down” features the Parchman Prison Choir once again with C.S. Deloch and M. Palmer sharing the lead of a raucous performance with the inmates clapping, some honky-tonk piano playing and hot singing and praising to the Lord. It’s an exceptional finish to an outstanding album as the group takes us home.

Due to prison restrictions, only the sounds of the event were allowed to be recorded. No photos or videos were allowed. The voices are quite haunting to begin with, and this makes the sound even more ethereal. The songs are pretty much Gospel standards but there are personal twists and transformations to the lyrics that add to the uniqueness and feeling. Black and white inmates were allowed to participate together which is not normal due to racial tensions at the facility.

Brenna reports that the men beamed, hugged and hi-fived one another in celebration and, Chaplain Sidney proudly said, “The making of this record has brought much needed encouragement and hope to the men here at Parchman.” These few hours were a beacon of hope for the participants.

Recorded completely live without overdubs at Parchman Prison Farm, all profits from the album benefit the Mississippi Department of Corrections Chaplain Services. I encourage all blues and gospel lovers to download or pick up a copy of the soon to be released CD or record. You will not be disappointed.

Some Mississippi Sunday Morning | Parchman Prison Prayer

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