I’ll be honest: I have a hard time getting past the sociological here. I mean, this was recorded at the Angola “work farm,” widely known for its brutality and corruption (less so in the mid-1950s when this was recorded than at the turn of the century, but still…). How many of these guys were behind barbed wire because of systematic social injustice — for using the wrong drinking fountain? Carried away into captivity (to quote the Melodians quoting Psalm 137), how to sing the songs of Zion while a prisoner in Babylon?
Same as before, only more so — with topicality, with a dash of the subversive, and even with a speculative eye on commercial viability outside prison walls. Quartet singing, bottleneck guitar, even sweet soul inflection a la Sam Cooke splash stylistic color throughout and afford these inmates uncommon freedom of expression. Archivist and recorder Dr. Harry Oster’s original notes assure that the call-and-response passion of Reverend Benjamin Osborne’s six-minute “Old Ship Of Zion” sermon was not the way of the walk inside. Say on.
The spiritual gets personal as singer Andy Mosely tweaks “When Moses Smote The Water” into “Brother Mosely Crossed The Water”. Robert Pete Williams (who recorded more records for Folklyric after his parole) plays fast and loose with biblical text as well as meter on several numbers. And Tom Dutson’s gravelly bass gives irrepressible charm to his rhythmically complex school-song doggerel.
Cool counterpoint factor: “Rise And Fly” is a work song (with anonymous lead vocalists) previously unreleased, and no small wonder: it’s pretty frank in its depiction of cheating and killing. Rap music has made such lyrical content viable today, but back in the ’50s it would have been cause for another roll of barbed wire to be unspooled around the prison yard. Hallelujah — social progress.