An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
04 October, 2010
"Parchman Farm Blues" - Bukka White
Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Thirteen: "Parchman Farm Blues" performed by Bukka White. Recorded in Chicago on March 7, 1940. Original issue OKeh 05683.
Booker T. Washington White was born between Aberdeen and Houston, Mississippi on November 12, 1906. His first instrument was the fiddle, which he played at local dances. Later, White took up the piano and the guitar, which White played with a slide and became his primary instrument. White later claimed to have met Charlie Patton early in his career, although this claim has since been disputed. In any case, Patton was a major influence on White.
White made his first recordings for Victor in 1930, which included several gospel numbers performed in the style of Blind Willie Johnson. In 1937, White was arrested for assault and was sentenced to the Mississippi State Penitentiary a.k.a. Parchman Farm. While in prison, White met and was recorded by John Lomax, who had already made a recording sensation of a Lead Belly, another former convict. Lomax recorded several of White's songs for the Library of Congress. White also recorded commercially while still in prison. One of his most famous songs, "Shake 'em On Down," was recorded during this period. It was during this period that White was given his notoriously condescending nickname. Vocalion, the record label that released the recordings White recorded while incarcerated, phonetically rendered White's given name as "Bukka" (one assumes this was because that is the way White himself pronounced the name "Booker"). White himself hated the nickname and insisted that his name be spelled correctly, but it stuck and was appended to all of his subsequent recordings.
Following his release in 1940, White traveled to Chicago where he recorded for Lester Melrose. Among the sides made for Melrose is this recording of "Parchman Farm Blues."
During the 1950s, White was musically inactive. He worked as a laborer for Newberry Equipment in Memphis, Tennessee. He was rediscovered in 1963 by guitarist John Fahey and Ed Dawson. That same year, White appeared at a Folk Festival at UC Berkley. White toured Europe and even performed at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. White also rerecorded many of his classic sides.
In the mid-1970s, White's health began to decline. He died on February 26, 1977.
White's music has been covered by such artists as Bob Dylan (who included White's "Fixin' To Die" on his first LP) to Led Zeppelin (who recorded White's "Shake 'em On Down"). White's first cousin is B.B. King, who got his first guitar from White and counts White as an early mentor.
Parchman Farm is another name for the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the oldest Federal prison in the state of Mississippi. The facility was built in 1901 and occupies roughly 18,000 acres. It holds 4,840 inmates at the minimum, medium, and maximum security levels. It holds only male offenders. Inmates work on the prison farm and in manufacturing workshops. Notable inmates include Vernon Presley (the father of Elvis Presley), Son House, and Stokely Carmichael.
Judge give me life this mornin' Down on Parchman farm. Judge give me life this mornin' Down on Parchman farm. I wouldn't hate it so bad But I left my wife in mourn.
Oh, goodbye wife. All you have done gone. Oh, goodbye wife. All you have done gone. But I hope some day, You will hear my lonesome song.
Oh, listen you men, I don't mean no harm. Oh, listen you men, I don't mean no harm. If you wanna do good, You better stay off old Parchman farm.
We got to work in the mornin' Just at dawn of day. We got to work in the mornin' Just at dawn of day. Just at the settin' of the sun That's when the work is done.
I'm down on ol' Parchman farm. I sho' wanna go back home. I'm down on ol' Parchman farm. But I sho' wanna go back home. But I hope some day I will overcome.
"Parchman Farm Blues" features White's exquisite slide guitar as well has his deeply expressive vocals (note how White twists and elongates his vowel sounds at the beginning of each line). The recording also features Robert Brown, a.k.a. Washboard Sam on washboard, providing the track's driving rhythm.
"Parchman Farm Blues" is the last of four blues recordings in a row.
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Here's Scott Ainslie performing "Parchman Farm Blues" on the diddley bow, a single string instrument with roots in sub-Saharan Africa. The song is preceded by an interesting discussion of the instrument and how it is played.