In this post, part-time OHMA student Bud Kliment reviews “The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore in Texas 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 guitar-playing prisoner named Huddie Ledbetter, and later helped him achieve national prominence as Lead Belly, an iconic performer whose music evoked the past while also being 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 worksongs, the rhythmic singing used to set the pace of hard labor, a 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 and 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 Prisons, was released in 1965 by Elektra, a commercial record label. Accordingly, there was variety in the 14-song selection. Along with classic worksongs like “Hammer Ring” and “Rattler,” there were spoken word tracks. Other songs utilized the close group harmonies of gospel and rhythm and blues, musical styles that developed after the Lomaxes first recorded. Rather than a documentary, the album is 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: other versions of the 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 new production by the Wooster Group at the Performing Garage. 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 unexceptional pictures from an apartment projected on a flatscreen monitor. Images of windows, a door and, notably, an air conditioner serve as counterpoint to the hot, crowded lives of the incarcerated men whose music is heard.
By the end of the performance, reality quietly recedes. One track segues into another. Delivering a “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 last cut, the actors stay silent--the prisoners’ voices hang in the air as filmed images of a work detail appear on the flatscreen. This is the only time the record becomes fully contextualized, with the inmates’ white uniforms offering a stark final reminder of who they were.
Unlike other, more direct 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. This 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. Visitors to OHMA’s workshop series this semester have heard E. Patrick Johnson describe his oral histories’ passage from interview to page to monologue to stage play to film, sampled the collective listening of Ultra-red, and watched as Michael Roberson presented a video of Princess Janae Banks lip-syncing Anita Baker’s “Rhythm of Love,” embodying and intensifying the song’s emotion.
“The B-Side” has all of these elements but feels different. In their fieldwork recordings Bruce Jackson and the Lomaxes were compelled to preserve music 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.
Performances of “The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore in Texas Prisons’ A Record Album Interpretation’” are sold out. If you'd like to try to see the show, there is a standby line at The Performing Garage (33 Wooster St) for each performance 30 minutes before that performance begins. Any available seats will be sold to the standby list, first-come, first serve.
Bud Kliment is a part-time OHMA student. His master's thesis will be about American song collecting and the development of oral history. A native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Columbia College, Bud is a Deputy Administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, helping to organize and oversee the annual awards in journalism, books, drama, and music. He has also worked regularly as a freelance writer, specializing in music and the other performing arts. Bud has published young adult biographies of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, along with travel guides, cookbooks, and museum labels. He wrote a radio series for BBC World Service that used Motown songs to help teach English. In a younger incarnation, he ran a record store.