Saturday, June 30, 2007

Lightnin' Slim:Cummins Prison Farm

Blues is the musical expression of a pre-revolutionary consciousness of the oppressed. It's a way of dealing with despair and hardship by articulating it in song, either in order to draw attention to the cause of the problem, or in order to deal with it by making fun of it or the person or thing that has caused it.

Sure, a lot of it is a man putting down a woman or vice versa, but much of it stands as social commentary, reflecting the life stories of men and women at the bottom of society.

Lightnin' Slim was born as Otis Hicks in 1913 in southern Lousiana. Some biographers are dismissive of his lack of musical originality (“Slim's stock-in-trade had mostly fallen off the back of other people's trucks,” declared Tony Russell in The Blues from Robert Johnson to Robert Cray), but the man who recorded him at the start of his career has a different view:

“…I'll listen to anyone that will come to my studio…If you see an ole country boy, that's your blues man; not your other guy that knows his music on a higher level – because he's not a blues man no more….If they don't feel the material they're singin' - that's it. People can distinguish whether they're authentic or not or whether it's just a synthetic singer and that's all…Now Lightnin' Slim, of course as far as knowledge of music I would say he knows less about knowledge of music than anyone else that I record, but for all that he's one of my best sellers for the simple reason that what he does, he does feelin' it. His father was a tenant farmer and they lived out there in the country and after the men would get through work they used to sit out there and they'd start to playin' and singin' you know. And they'd sing these ole blues and the blues was generally bad luck and the troubles they have…Slim seems to give out more of something real…” (J. D. Miller, recording studio owner, Louisiana, in Conversation with the Blues by Paul Oliver, Cambridge University Press).

The song I've transcribed below reflects black prison life. (There is also a version by Magic Sam that I don't have, but if anyone has got it and can help me with the line I found hard to transcribe, I'd appreciate it.) The Cummins Prison Farm’s history of brutality and torture has been documented (like the use of the "Tucker telephone" - right - used to administer electric shocks to prisoners until the mid-1970s) and links to various articles can be found at Wikipedia or here at

Prof. Randall G. Sheldon has an article on the Blackcommentator website that explores the place of various types of slavery in the capitalist system. He makes the point that: “It can also be said that the use of inmates as a form of cheap labor has been part of the capitalist system from the beginning, as owners seek to maximize profits however they can, including using the cheapest form of labor, whether it be slaves, immigrant labor, or inmates. In fact, taking advantage of those imprisoned (in various forms, including slavery) has been common among nations for centuries.”

I downloaded this version of Cummins Prison Farm from the excellent “Honey, Where You Been So Long” archive of pre-WW2 blues material.


I was born in Missoura
Across the line from Arkinsaw
Oh yes I was
I was born in Missoura
Across the line from Arkinsaw
Oh yeah
Didn't have any money
I got in trouble
With the law

It's hard being a prisoner
Down on Cummins Prison Farm
It's hard being a prisoner, y'all
Down on Cummins Prison Farm
Oh yes it is
Down there start thinkin'
Till you're some of 'em and that's all
{I'm pretty sure this line is wrong, but can't get any clearer}

I hadn't been there but one day
And I learned that you don't play
I hadn't been down there but one day
And I learned that you don't play
Oh no you don't
Been there forever
Tomorrow gonna be a long
Hard day


Warden be a good man
You oughtta free me from this mess
Warden now be a good man
You oughtta free me from this mess
Warden look me in the eye
Down here with Slim
We have a lot of good men

1 comment:

Mike said...

The line that was unclear to me is apparently "I thought I tell you some of it in this song".