In this post, OHMA alum Bud Kliment reviews “The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons’ A Record Album Interpretation” a performance piece of musical theater and oral history based on the 1965 LP “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons.”
Jail has often served as a wellspring of American music. Beginning in 1933, John Lomax and his son Alan travelled to southern prisons to collect and record songs sung by inmates, believing that the segregated institutions had preserved African-American musical styles from outside influence and dilution. Early in their search they got lucky: they met a singing, guitar-playing prisoner named Huddie Ledbetter, and later helped him achieve national prominence as Lead Belly, an iconic American performer whose vast repertoire of music evoked the past yet was also original.
In the early 1960s, inspired by the Lomaxes, Bruce Jackson, a young folklorist (now SUNY Distinguished Professor at the University at Buffalo) visited Texas prisons to investigate how inmate traditions had changed. He chose to focus on the tenuous survival of work songs, the rhythmic singing used to set the pace of hard labor, a musical style traceable back to Africa. Jackson’s findings, first published in 1972 as Wake Up Dead Man: Afro-American Worksongs in Texas Prisons, built on the Lomaxes’ foundation but also included oral histories from the prisoners of the songs they had sung. “Before you can make any sense of a body of folk songs,” he wrote, “the people who made them must seem as people to you... (I) decided that the men who made the songs tell that story very well themselves.”
Drawn from recordings Jackson made during his fieldwork, a companion album, Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, was released in 1965 by Elektra, a commercial record label. Accordingly, there was variety in the 14-song selection. Classic work songs like “Hammer Ring” and “Rattler” alternated with spoken word tracks. Other songs utilized the close group harmonies of gospel and rhythm and blues, musical styles that developed after the Lomaxes began collecting. Rather than a documentary, the album was a coherent, listenable collection, a persuasive sample of the breadth of African-American oral tradition and song. One track, “Just Like a Tree Planted by the River” is representative of that breadth: versions of the same song were sung by the essential bluesman Charley Patton in 1929, and by the SNCC Freedom Singers during the Civil Rights movement.
More than 50 years since its release, the album’s performances have been resurrected and reincarnated in “The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons’ A Record Album Interpretation,” a production by the Wooster Group, currently at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Directed by Kate Valk, the piece was conceived by Eric Berryman, who, along with Philip Moore and Jasper McGruder, recreate the album in sequence with their own voices and some clever sound design. Using earpieces and volume control, the performers seem in conversation with the original recordings-- the live and recorded voices alternate, meld and boost one another. The channeling feels utterly faithful, as if the originals were being passed down. The performers’ focus heightens the effect. Over the course of an hour, Eric Berryman is transformed. When he hits certain high notes--think Al Green here--he appears almost startled by the music’s grip on him.
The piece is staged straightforwardly, with a detached cool. The men take turns gathering around a turntable. Berryman introduces certain tracks and reads a few selections from Jackson’s oral histories. (Each prisoner’s name is included in the program notes.) Subtle bits of stage business fill the gaps between songs: Berryman routinely cleans the record; the singers sip tea. These are intentional reality checks, reminders of the world “outside” the recorded music. The contrast is heightened by photographs from an apartment projected on a flatscreen monitor. Common images of windows, a door and, notably, an air conditioner serve as counterpoint to the hot, crowded lives of the imprisoned men whose music is heard.
By the end of the performance, reality quietly recedes. One track segues into another, without introduction. Delivering the “mock sermon,” “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” Berryman pushes the turntable aside and enters the audience. Past and present, live and recorded, performer and spectator momentarily merge, leaving a congregation of rapt listeners. For the album’s final track, the actors go silent--the prisoners’ voices hang in the air as filmed images of a work detail appear on the flatscreen. This is the only time that the record becomes fully contextualized, with the inmates’ white uniforms and the sound of their axes chopping in unison offering stark reminders of who and where they were.
Unlike other, more obvious forms of musical theater, “The B-Side” is quietly haunting. (In the parlance of vinyl records, the b-side refers to the “other” side of a hit record, where discarded or less popular songs appear.) Even when considered “texts,” recordings don’t follow dramatic arcs, which makes the effect of this “record album interpretation” impressive and multi-layered. As an experience it’s visual and aural, historical and contemporary, reflective and activist. This is a new and hybrid form, still evolving, but surely of interest to oral historians concerned with uses and renditions of personal histories, and deep listening.
Like the original recordings, the theater piece is rooted in performances, now shared and complemented by an audience. In the St. Ann’s production (the show was originally staged in 2017 at the Performing Garage), the actors embody the songs fully, with a visible and natural camaraderie. In their fieldwork recordings Bruce Jackson and the Lomaxes were compelled to preserve music and stories before the present erased the past. With restraint and reverence, “The B-Side” conjures the past as a living event, then lets it fade out again, like a song. By giving new corporeality to old musical voices it helps listeners discover and connect to a humanity that transcends time.
“The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons’ A Record Album Interpretation’” is being performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse until March 24. For tickets and other information see https://stannswarehouse.org/show/the-b-side/.
Bud Kliment graduated from OHMA in February, 2019. His master's thesis, “Lomaxland: Song Collecting and the Development of Oral American History,” includes a version of this review.