Music & Lyrics by Alford Rose, Performed by Alford Rose
Elayn Hunt Correctional Center
NOWHERE BOUND - ELAYN HUNT CORRECTIONAL CENTER, LOUISIANA
"Honky-tonk barrooms and one night stands, / No kind of life for the simple man. / Ain’t nothing simple in the way I live, / Take what I want, I never give."
"Nowhere Bound," is a mournful country tune written and performed by Elayn Hunt Correctional Center inmate Alford Rose. His voice is punctuated by a steady beat of soft knee slaps and the ringing of the prison phone. It’s featured in Follow Me Down, a documentary about music in Louisiana prisons, produced by Georgetown professor Benjamin Harbert.
The American folk song tradition has deep roots in Southern penitentiaries — blues and folk icon Lead Belly was first recorded by John and Alan Lomax during their visit to the Angola Prison Farm and the father-son duo would preserve many other voices on their trips to Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi prisons.
Filmmaker and ethnomusicologist Ben Harbert wanted to visit modern prisons, to document through music the “serious, sad and politically frustrating stories” of inmates. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for A/G and what follows is Part One of our interview:
A/G: Follow Me Down aims to follow in the footsteps of folklorists past, asking about the role of music in Louisiana prisons today. Did you find that it plays a similar part to penitentiary music in Lead Belly’s day or has it taken on new dimensions?
BH: When John Lomax visited Angola prison in 1933 and 1934, inmates had shorter sentences and did harder labor. Today’s inmates do more time due to truth-in-sentencing laws passed in 1973. Reforms, however, have made the labor less harsh. So instead of music helping do the work of hard labor with release in (far) sight, music does the work of healing. Inmates use music to maintain hope, form communities, measure time, stay connected to the outside, and maintain a unique sense of self. According to the Lomaxes, Harry Oster and Bruce Jackson, music did much of this work before, but it’s now inflected differently. The inmates still work in line crews in the fields, but since the 1970s, they’ve substituted R&B for the folk songs. So instead of singing “Stewball” and “John Henry,” they cut up and repurpose Otis Redding and Smokey Robinson songs to time their labor, fend off boredom, and surreptitiously poke fun at the guards and each other. In a sense, it’s a similar tradition of practice with updated material.
A/G: The documentary was filmed at three different facilities — Angola, Hunt and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. Can you describe how music programs work inside Louisiana prisons? Are they formally sponsored by the Department of Corrections? Do inmates have access to instruments and equipment?
BH: The music is run by the recreation department at Angola. At Hunt, it’s a music club supervised by a country guitar playing teacher in the educational program. At LCIW, the women have little to no access to instruments (the administration doesn’t see a need). That said, it is really the inmates who run things and often they have a eye for what the administration values. For this reason, there are many bands who fit into the religious efforts at Angola. There are bands of all kinds, but the religious groups get more access, better band rooms and opportunities to travel. Secular music is more prominent at Hunt, but the trade-off is that there are fewer official gigs.
A/G: Can you talk a little bit about the musicians and their relationships with one another? How do groups form? Are people musically inclined prior to their incarceration or do they pick up music after they arrive?
BH: It’s hard to learn music in prison. Inmates are sensitive to taking instructions from each other. There is also an amount of trust in learning music and that is a scarce commodity in prison. By and large, the musicians in prison played before. It forms strong communities because they can look at each other as musicians, not criminals. There is relief in suspending being defined by the worst thing you’ve done and contributing to a performance or rehearsal. And like on the outside, a common interest in music can be a source of endless conversation that can vacillate between casual and deeply personal discussion.
A/G: Is there something about Louisiana in particular that drew you to focus on the prisons there?
BH: Louisiana was one of the stops on the historic folk song collection tour that John and Alan Lomax made in 1933 and 1934 for the Library of Congress. On that tour, they collected songs like “Midnight Special,” “Goodnight Irene,” and “Black Betty” from prisons. As a scholar, I thought that the now 80 years of data would help tell a story of how music responds to the conditions of prison. I’m writing that book on music at Angola Prison now. Louisiana is also an exceptional prison system in that the state leads the country in incarceration rates and many of the inmates are from New Orleans, one of the most musical cities in America. It’s as fertile for the musicologist as it is sad as a citizen and you can’t escape wearing both hats.
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This interview continues later today. Hear the first track we featured, “All of My Troubles,” here.
(Photo: Louisiana Department of Corrections)