Opinion: Incarceration in Moderation

Incarceration in Moderation

by Jordan J

Big Mama Thornton JailLove, class wars, and geography. It’s hard to fall on the wrong side of the three greatest musical muses known to humankind.*
I’ve always been a fan of folk traditions and lyrics with a sly regional flair. The Appalachian-inspired country music of the 30’s and 40’s brings me closer to my family’s agricultural roots in the sandy soil of the Southeast. Surf rock transports me to a sunnier, slightly more coked out place in the breeze. Greek music takes me to a place where there is a cruel disregard for the number four, et cetera.
But music referring to specific locations is a secular tradition that took a hard hit in the 70’s and 80’s—thanks in part to the insufferable Tolkien-enthusiasm of bands like Led Zepplin and Rush. Novices. For a safe geographical muse, one should always stick to home or prison. No one has been to Fangorn Forest, but everyone has been home or in a perceived prison, and—with our growing incarceration rates—quite a few of us have been in literal prisons. More on that later.
Both real and fictionalized, from John & Ruby Lomax’s recordings of prison work songs to the Cohen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou, incarceration breeds listening pleasure. I wouldn’t recommend landing in jail for any other life goal-related outcomes, but it’s not a bad place to be if you want to make a good album.
As a disclaimer, in speaking of jail-themed albums, there is one that the kids seem to dig the most. Due to a heaping helping of prior press coverage, however, you’ve probably already heard some deep cuts from that particular album at Chipotle. I’d be doing you no favors by yammering on about it here. For this reason, I solemnly swear that—after this sentence—there will be no mention of Johnny Cash At San Quentin—not even to make an oral sex joke about the moniker “old golden throat.”

My focus is on two albums by African-American women from the culturally underrated and geographically compelling state of Alabama. Although Tennessee and Michigan have received their fair share of accolades for changing the face of music, Alabama frequently fails to receive credit where credit is due. WC Handy was born and raised in Alabama, and the state’s influence on popular music began with the conception of popular music in the United States.  Hank Williams, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Martha Reeves, Sun Ra, the freaking Muscle Shoals scene—we’re talking heavy hitters from Alabama. Even Jimmy Buffett is from Alabama. Jimmy “Manatee Love” Buffett, people. And all from a state that we’re not entirely sure is fit for human habitation in the first place.

Big Mama Thornton hails from the lower eastern corner of the state. Decades into her career, her Jail album was released by Vanguard in 1975—shortly after being recorded live at Monroe State Prison, Monroe, Washington and Oregon State Reformatory, Eugene, Oregon . The album artwork for Jail, although probably just a rushed stock photography job, has personality for days. With dingy walls, a prison mattress upended on the cot, a couple of harmonicas, and an overturned whiskey bottle, this cell is spartan, but quietly suggests “home is where the heart is.” Known most for being the first artist to record “Hound Dog” (three years before Elvis’ break with the song), and as the original writer and performer of “Ball ‘n’ Chain, Thornton was in her late forties by the time she recorded Jail. The appeal of the album isn’t in the groundbreaking energy of the first decades of her career, but in the slow, strong sensibilities of a group of musicians with a century of experience between them. My favorite track is her version of “Ball ‘n’ Chain,” the “true” version. Her introduction and delivery ring with self-awareness of the opportunities and credit that were out of her reach by virtue of being trapped in the life of a black woman born in the United States in the 1920s. Still, the voice is strong, confident, and playful.

Conversely, Angela Davis’ spoken word album, The Prison Industrial Complex (released on Dead Kennedy frontman Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label in 2000), tells a decidedly less homey version of incarceration than the cover of Thornton’s Jail implies. Born in Birmingham in the 1940’s, Davis’ mother was politically active and Davis was exposed to liberal thought from an early age. In stark contrast to what many textbooks would have you believe, communism in agricultural and Southern communities during this period was not an underground movement. Coming from what is truly a part of our American value set, Davis’ lecture on the capitalist connection to the state of the nation’s prison systems is approachable, rational, and smart. For those who have not yet followed the money to what is driving the trends in prisons, The Prison Industrial Complex will break it down for you. Unfortunately, over fifteen years, the material has aged too well. By placing an emphasis on the human costs, her spoken word album is every bit as moving as a well-performed blues record, and offers a sociological depth that expounds on the policies and realities that bear prison culture. It’s also a subtle reminder that, although we may have white-washed popular cultural glimpses into prison life—in the form of “prison” albums, television dramas, and so on—the suffering and waste of real prison is largely invisible to us. The Prison Industrial Complex is the perfect counter weight to Jail in that it reminds us of the great gift of freedom, and that, as anyone who has listened to the music may have suspected, most people in prison aren’t much different than you and me.

*Hard, but not impossible: wrong side of love=”More than Words” Extreme; wrong side of class wars=”It’s All About the Benjamins” Puff Daddy; wrong side of geography=Anything about Chicago. Christ, just get over yourself, Chicago.



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