Parchman Prison Prayer – Some Mississippi Sunday Morning
(Glitterbeat GBCD143. Review by Bruce Lindsay.)
This is stunning: an album so filled with beauty, emotional impact and hope comes round once in a blue moon, but Parchman Prison Prayer – Some Mississippi Sunday Morning is such an album.
Despite the title, this isn’t by an Americana or New Country band called Parchman Prison Prayer. Far from it. This is a recording of a Sunday service in the maximum security Parchman Prison, Mississippi, a collection of fifteen performances by fourteen prisoners and a chaplain that range from a cappella solos to rap, from vocal harmonies to a full-on, seven minute, electric jam session. Ian Brennan, the Grammy-winning producer, spent three years arranging access to the prison then had just a few hours to record these songs, all first takes without overdubs.
Parchman Prison, established in 1901 and divided into separate units known as farms, has its own place in the history of American music. It’s been the temporary and undesired home of Bukka White, Mose Allison, Son House and Vernon Presley, Elvis’ father. It’s close to Clarksdale, the area where Muddy Waters grew up and Sam Cooke and Ike Turner were born, and it’s not too far from the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil. The blues, so tied into the area, is no longer prevalent. As album producer Ian Brennan said when we spoke via Zoom, many in the area would struggle even to name a blues artist, but the single musical thread that runs through the area’s history is gospel and it’s gospel that’s at the heart of this record.
Prison chaplains selected men from across Parchman’s dozen or so regular Sunday services to take part, but Brennan had no prior knowledge of them before the recording session began. Initially, he recalls, they sat alone or in groups of two or three, wary of each other and of the producer. Gradually, they stepped up to the microphone to perform. Some sang just once, others returned for a second time. Although Brennan expected there would be worthwhile performances, he was unprepared for what he heard: they were, without exception, a revelation.
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Video and still photography was not allowed, so there are no images of the performers. The album notes give first initial, surname and age, that’s all: the performers didn’t want their crimes or their places of origin made public, while the album is meant to humanise, not glorify, the singers, to show potential for growth and redemption. Brennan revealed that eleven of the fourteen prisoners are black — Mississippi has the highest proportion of African Americans in the USA — and that most of the men are from rural rather than urban areas but gave no further details. Their voices, and their music, tell their stories. One chaplain performs: the 73-year-old C.S. Deloch, a rock and roll singer in his youth as well as a former inmate. Other performers range in age from late-20s to mid-60s.
Most of the performers chose to sing gospel songs, usually a cappella. N Peterson brings a gentle, country-style, swing to “Step Into the Water,” with handclap accompaniment; M Kyles’ rendition of “Break Every Chain” is deeply soulful; L Stevenson’s performances of “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” and “I Gotta Run” are tender and melancholy; L Brown’s a cappella “Hosanna” is beautiful from start to finish. The 60-year-old M Palmer sings “Solve My Need” in a voice that’s so low and sonorous, as the press release puts it, “[it’s] as if Barry White were a soprano.” “Locked Down, Mama Prays for Me” is an impassioned rap from J Robinson, with backing vocals from A Warren, and D Thomas sings a deeply personal and defiant “I’m Still Here.” The singer/pianist on the beautiful “I Give Myself Away, So You Can Use Me” asked to remain anonymous and was at first reluctant to perform. Brennan thinks he’s one of the youngest of the singers, but his performance is ageless: initially hesitant, he grows in confidence but never loses a touching sense of sadness and regret. Towards the end, other voices join in spontaneously to create one of the most affecting of all these songs.
The album closes with “Lay My Burden Down.” It’s credited to the Parchman Prison Choir featuring C.S. Deloch and M Palmer: Brennan recalls that everyone joined in, including two chaplains who arrived late in the session, with some of the singers forming the backing band. The anonymous singer of “I Give Myself Away” plays bass guitar, combining energy and genuine talent as he crafts some fluid bass runs which Brennan compares to the great Motown bassist James Jamerson. Things get a little loose from time to time — hardly surprising given that 17 performers are jamming spontaneously — but throughout the song’s seven minutes there’s real and infectious joy in these singers and musicians.
At the end of the session all of the performers came together, high-fiving, shaking hands, hugging and congratulating each other. The initial wariness had disappeared, replaced by a sense of unity within the group. Parchman Prison Prayer – Some Mississippi Sunday Morning captures that feeling, along with fifteen beautiful and heartfelt performances.
[All profits from this album will benefit the Mississippi Department of Corrections Chaplain Services.]