A.B. Spellman, in his essay on Cecil Taylor in the essential Black Music: Four Lives, quotes a keen follower of jazz as saying, ” ...the only true history of America is recorded in its music. The music says what is really happening here.” It is clear that few people, if any, contributed more to the recording of that history than Alan Lomax and his father John A. Lomax. Alan Lomax alone is credited with being the first to record Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Muddy Waters, each towering figures in the blues and folk traditions of the United States.
When the Lomaxes began in 1933 travelling on behalf of the Library of Congress in order to make their field recordings, among their first stops were the Texas prisons located in the Brazos and Trinity River valleys. There they recorded the black convicts and their work songs collected here on Big Brazos: Texas Prison Recordings, 1933 and 1934 (part of Rounder’s Deep River of Song series).
Working from “sun to sun,” the imprisoned men split wood, felled trees, picked cotton and cut sugarcane on the white-owned farms they were literally leased out to. The specific songs, lyrics and rhythms reflected the specific work they were compelled to do. For example, the well-known spiritual “Gonna Be a Witness” was a tree-cutting song, with the rhythm being relied to both help keep up the pace (since punishment would come done hard on those who fell behind), and to coordinate their movements, thus helping them avoid striking each other with their axes (referred to in these songs as a “hammer” or a “diamond”).
While the music here, which is entirely unaccompanied vocals, is not the kind of music that you would put on at home to entertain your friends, anyone who has an active interest in the history of the United States, or in “roots” music, whether it be blues, folk or country, would find this material very interesting. Quite literally this material is a time capsule made up of artifacts that we may never be able to fully understand nearly 80 years after their creation, but as we try to interpret them and imagine what life may have been life for these men, we will have a greater understanding of both the experience of these people, and of the music that many of us listen to without considering the context within which it was created or passed on.
That, of course, is a very different orientation of listening to music than we are used to. It is not contentious to say that music today is regarded almost exclusively as entertainment, as something that adds pleasure to our lives, or that it exists as a pleasant distraction. The music on Big Brazos is the music of survival. When these men were alive and singing these songs, it kept them alive. Now that those men are gone, it allows their stories, the stories of their lives in prison, the ring of the hammer, their fear of a guard called Jack o’Diamonds and their defiance of a tracking dog called Rattler to survive in our collective memory.