The Jail House Blues
In the earlier
decades of this century, to be imprisoned was an almost weekly
occurrence for many working-class blacks. Apart from actual crimes they
committed, there were two main reasons for this. In the first place, it
was a kind of “social control”, to keep “niggers in their place” and to
keep re-asserting white “superiority”.
This stems from
slavery times, when blacks were often regarded on the same par as cattle
or as a “product” to gather in the cotton crops, sugar cane harvest,
etc. which ensured the wealth of the South and the plantation owners
(the Southern “aristocracy”). With the end of the Civil War in 1865,
this scenario came to an end. So ruling whites first of all tried to
re-enact the Black Codes of the ante-bellum period, which had
constrained both the slave and the freedman. But within a year, the U.S.
Federal government had nipped this in the bud. So Southern whites had to
think of another way of keeping control. As far as the penal system was
concerned, this meant continuance and increasing use of convict-lease.
latter, barbarous system served the second reason for jailing blacks. To
enable the badly-damaged, war-torn infrastructure of the South to be
re-built as cheaply as possible. Briefly, prisoners were leased out to
private contractors who were supposed to look after their charges and
return them to the prison when the contract expired. These contractors
were mainly railroad construction companies, mining companies, foundry
owners, and the lumber industry. Needless to say, nobody was bothered if
some prisoners were “lost” (i.e. died from illness/disease or killed
whilst attempting to “escape”). Most of the prisoners were black, as
whites were generally jailed for actual (i.e. real) crimes. So horrific
was this system that a general public outcry from many Southern whites,
black social workers/church leaders, Northern entrepreneurs, etc.
gradually convinced the state legislators to abolish convict-lease
between the late 1880’s and 1928.
states now had a substitute in the form of the chain gang. Often no less
savage a system, the main difference being that now each state was
accountable for the supervision/welfare of their prisoners. This system
too, proved unjustifiable in the post-bellum New South, so it was
gradually replaced with the county farm (see “County Jail Blues” by Big
Maceo). Here a local sheriff would arrest a black man/woman on almost
any pretext (vagrancy, for being a stranger in town, and black, etc.)
and send them to a local landowner for a fee. The white farmer would
keep this cheap labour for as long as he required.
The early blues
singer adopted different attitudes towards the ever-present threat of
incarceration. Including humour, irony, and resignation. As “Jesse
James” (“Lonesome Day Blues”) sang about tomorrow:
“It might bring sunshine, Lord, an’ it may bring rain.”
Back to What is the Blues?
Quiz: Name the celebrated bluesman who was a guest of the jail in the
photo, and where was the photo taken? No prizes, but I doubt if there
are very many right answers.
Clue: The photo was taken in Mississippi (that's not much of a clue),
how about a giveaway, this all sounds a little bit fishy and my cat love
on a £10 note ($10 note will do!) to.......... no, seriously, just
email me at firstname.lastname@example.org