The Music of Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola has been called "the Alcatraz of the South." For most of its 110-year history, its name has been synonymous with brutality, suffering and executions. Yet it also stands out for a different reason: its music.
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The Music of Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary

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The Music of Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary

The Music of Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary

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MELISSA BLOCK: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. It's been called the Alcatraz of the South. To locals, it's The Farm. For much of its history, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola has been synonymous with brutality, suffering and executions. Among prisons, it also stands out for an entirely different and unlikely reason: its music. Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center explains.

HAL CANNON: In the early 1930s when the legendary folklorist John Lomax and his son Alan set off on a year and a half long odyssey on America's back roads, one of their first stops was prison.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: To the Louisiana State Penitentiary goes John A. Lomax, Library of Congress curator, collector of American folk songs.

CANNON: John Lomax was on a mission to gather folk songs of African-Americans, specifically music born of slavery, and he wanted it in its purest form, unsullied by what he saw as the polluting force of popular music.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) (Unintelligible) pick a bale, pick a bale, pick a bale of cotton. (Unintelligible) pick a bale, pick a bale, pick a bale of hay.

CANNON: Angola had been a plantation before it became a prison. And what Lomax found here was as isolating and brutal as anything from the Old South.

ROBERT PIERCE: It was a place where if you were sent, you worked, you were segregated. And if you tried to run off, they would shoot you.

CANNON: Robert Pierce is a former corrections officer and a prison historian. He says that in the institution's pecking order in those days, convicts who could sing held a special status.

PIERCE: A lot of times, encouragement was given by the guards if they knew a particular inmate could sing, and he got special privileges. And even though they were tough on their wardens, they'd like to show off a little bit. That's my singer, you know? He's on my unit.

CANNON: One prisoner in particular impressed Lomax.


HUDDIE LEDBETTER: (Singing) Irene, goodnight. Irene, goodnight. Goodnight, Irene. Goodnight, Irene. I'll see you in my dreams.

CANNON: His name was Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. As the legend goes, Lomax helped spring him from Angola.

MAN: Then hailed by the Library of Congress' Music Division as its greatest folk song find in 25 years, Leadbelly's songs go into the archives of the great national institution along with the original copy of the Declaration of Independence.

CANNON: Lomax found all sorts of songs behind prisons walls, many going back to slavery days: work songs, love songs, field hollers, blues, religious music.


GROUP: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Nailed to the cross. Pierced him in the side. They nailed him to the cross. (Unintelligible). They nailed him to the cross. (Unintelligible) They nailed him to the cross. (Unintelligible). Never said a mumbling word. Well, well, he just hung down his head and died.

CANNON: Some of those traditions, like Gospel quartets, continue to this day at Angola.

LARRY WILKINSON: Here's what the old folks used to do.


VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS: (Singing) They used to farm on their knees and lift their faith towards the rising sun and say, oh, Lord, have mercy, even down here in Angola. Have mercy. We need the lord.

CANNON: Voices in the Wilderness is one of several Gospel groups performing in the prison yard on this day. Larry Wilkinson, who's in for second-degree murder, is the lead singer.

WILKINSON: As a group, we praise God to the utmost and sincerely. So, you know, in order for us to sound like we sound, we have to try to walk that walk in a Christian life as positive as we should.

CANNON: Angola is a different place than it was in John Lomax's day. Prison reforms have reduced abuses, and high walls and razor wire can't keep out popular culture. Angola is no longer a musical time capsule.


GROUP: (Singing) Oh, I pray to you, oh, Lord, don't you (unintelligible). I need (unintelligible).

CANNON: Michael Palmer's group performs in the prison yard. Palmer is serving a 45-year sentence for armed robbery. On the outside, he was a rapper.

MICHAEL PALMER: When I was doing gangsta rap, I was just reciting the lifestyle I was living, taking everything that I was surrounded by and putting it through music.

CANNON: Behind two sets of heavy security doors, down the hall from his cellblock, Palmer sings the chorus to one of his old songs.

PALMER: (Singing) People always talking about you're a killer. I don't care what you people say, just don't mess with me.

BLOCK: (Singing) Satan always talking about you're a Christian. I don't care what the devil says. Jesus died for me. Ooh, as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I stand strong on my feet. This is only a test.

CANNON: Palmer says his transition from gangsta to Gospel was a transition from darkness to light. Many prisoners have found redemption through religion here at Angola. These days, it's official policy of the prison to encourage creativity among prisoners, be it singing, crafts or painting. Assistant Warden Kathy Fontenot says it's not just effective prison management, it gives inmates an important tool for survival.

KATHY FONTENOT: It's allowing somebody to grow. You respect yourself, and then you start respecting others. And people really want to see people come back. I mean, America loves an underdog, and that's what we are here, a bunch of underdogs.

CANNON: Another underdog is Daniel Washington.


CANNON: He learned to play guitar as a child growing up in a small town across the river from New Orleans.


DANIEL WASHINGTON: (Singing) (Unintelligible) a stranger. And I soon found out her name was danger and trouble she was about.

CANNON: After he got to Angola, he wrote this song about how his life began to take a wrong turn.

WASHINGTON: There was just something about the streets that I was drawn to. I'd hang out all night long in a club, living like a vampire. When the sun come up, I'm going in. When the sun go down, I'm coming out.

CANNON: Eventually, Washington killed a man, and that's what sent him to Angola. He's been here for 25 years, and like three-quarters of the prisoners here, he's serving a life sentence. In Louisiana, that means he's here till he dies, no parole.


WASHINGTON: (Singing) That's when I found myself in a sea of trouble.

CANNON: And trouble with authority marked his first years here.

WASHINGTON: They locked me up so many times, sent me to Camp J. Camp J is just the harshest punishment that they give you. They send you to Camp J.

CANNON: And it was in his third visit to Camp J that Washington decided to reconnect with his passion for music. This began his climb out of the hole to the point where he became a prison trustee.


WASHINGTON: I got into the traveling band, started traveling all over the state of Louisiana, go and sing in front of crowds, doing something that I love doing. Now, this is a much bigger step up than from where I was at in the cell.


WASHINGTON: Thank you very much.

CANNON: Despite all of the changes since the 1930s, when folklorist John Lomax recorded at Angola, life here is still based on a system of punishment and reward, and one of those rewards is music. For these convicts, that offers their only taste of freedom. For NPR News, I'm Hal Cannon.


MAN: (Singing) First time I'm in trouble, I didn't get no fair trial at all. Oh, no. Feel like to me, baby, they (unintelligible).

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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