Parchman Prison Prayer: Some Mississippi Sunday Morning
Ian Brennan, a Grammy-winning producer (Tinariwen, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott) went to Mississippi early in 2023 to record the voices of inmates at Parchman Farm, one of the most infamous penitentiaries in the country. While Parchman is primarily known for the harsh treatment of its prisoners, music lovers may be familiar with the penitentiary from the work of Bukka White and Mose Allison. (White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” was rewritten by Allison as “Parchman Farm,” with an ironic lyric, becoming one of his signature tunes.) The prison’s complicated history, as well as its musical legacy, are detailed in the liner notes, but it’s the singing of the inmates that makes this album memorable. After years of bureaucratic runarounds, Brennan was allowed into the facility for a few hours on a Sunday morning, and the prison’s chaplains convened a special gathering of singers and musicians. Brennan recorded them on the fly, many inmates singing a cappella, and then culled 15 memorable performances for Some Mississippi Sunday Morning. Highlights include “Break Every Chain,” which is sung in an impressive high tenor with subtle improvisations by 52-year-old M. Kyles, and The Williams Brothers hit “If I Couldn’t Say One Word, I’ll Just Wave My Hand,” which is performed by the Parchman Prison Choir, who are augmented by some piano and a tapping snare. The lead vocalist, 36-year-old L. Brown, belts it out, while the choir provides backing harmonies. The chorus is also featured on a rendition of “Lay My Burden Down,” a traditional song that was popular during the Civil Rights Movement. Here, a mix of piano, bass and drums back the choir as 73-year-old C.S. Deloch and 60-year-old M. Palmer trade lead lines, with the ensemble adding improvisations and soul-stirring shouts of joy. And there is even a charitable element to the project too, with all profits going to the Mississippi Department of Corrections Chaplain Services.