Haunting In Situ Recordings From Parchman Farm Maximum Security Prison In Mississippi (USA)
By Stevie Connor.
Haunting in situ recordings from Parchman Farm maximum security prison in Mississippi (USA). Producer Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, Ustad Saami, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Zomba Prison Project) recorded the prison’s Sunday gospel service and the results are unforgettable.
The performances range from solo a capella to a floor-shaking electric band. The repertoire includes both traditional and newly penned spirituals. “Some Mississippi Sunday Morning” is an unfiltered and deeply resonant journey into a musical world rarely seen or heard.
In February 2023, Grammy-winning music producer, Ian Brennan traveled to Mississippi to record with the prisoners of the notorious Parchman Prison. The institution has a rich musical history with Son House, Bukka White, Mose Allison and Elvis Presley’s father, Vernon Presley, having been former residents. The bureaucratic process for his visit took over three years. Granted approval a little more than a week before, Brennan caught a red eye flight to be there on a Sunday morning for the few hours he was allowed to record.
The chaplains of the prison convened a special service of various singers from across the dozen or so different services that take place every Sunday at Parchman. Somewhat bashful at first, the men volunteered one-by-one and sang a capella songs. Inspired by one another, those that had initially refused or were reluctant to sing, eventually stepped-up to the microphone and many took second turns as the morning unfolded. The entire meeting climaxed with an unplanned, full-band free for all as the musicians traded off the chapel’s instruments on-the-fly.
“I had a blind faith that the voices would be compelling. But the men exceeded my expectations astronomically with the depth and nuance— and often downright virtuosity— of their singing,” Brennan recalls.
With over 2-million people incarcerated, the United States currently leads the world both in the total number of people in prison and the rate per capita. Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the country at more than six times the rate of the state with the lowest.
Mississippi’s oldest penitentiary, Parchman was founded in 1901 and has one of the highest prisoner mortality rates in the nation as well as experiencing ongoing riots. Parchman is located just a hop and a skip to the north of Money, Mississippi where a young black man Emmett Till was infamously tortured and lynched in 1955. Also, just around the corner is the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale near where Muddy Waters was raised, where Sam Cooke and Ike Turner were born, where Bessie Smith died, and Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads (which had historically been an intersection of two major First Nation routes).
Comprised of “farms,” the prison occupies twenty-eight square miles and houses death row for both men and women in Mississippi. Such is the history, they even have their own cemetery.
Scandals rocked the prison in recent years with multiple deaths and murders, and Jay-Z even filed a class action suit on behalf of the prisoners due to the “barbaric” and “abhorrent” conditions.
Due to restrictions on video and photos, the only artifact from this meeting are the sounds— making the voices all the more ethereal and ghostly.
One man’s voice was so deep, it sounded like the Mississippi River singing— as if Barry White were a soprano. Another freestyled a rap about the shame he feels for having caused pain to his mother and others due to his actions. Another was a 73-year-old, former “rock and roll” singer who’d survived prison, become a chaplain, and found God. His mantra was, “You’ve got to get out of prison while you’re still in prison.”
A veil of sadness seemed to shroud. The singers’ voices softened and textured by the inescapable regret that their environment confronts them with.
Most songs were covers of Gospel standards, but delivered so imbued with subtext that they were transformed almost unrecognizably from the source material.
One of the beauties of the experience was that it was a successful integration of white and black inmates, whose services are often held separately due to racial tensions.
As the men beamed, hugged and hi-fived one another in celebration, Chaplain Sidney beamed, “The making of this record has brought much needed encouragement and hope to the men here at Parchman.”
These were voices unchained, if only for those few hours. Expressing a vocal breadth of freedom otherwise denied and restrained.
Recorded 100% live without overdubs at Parchman maximum security prison’s Sunday morning service.
All profits from the album benefit the Mississippi Department of Corrections Chaplain Services.