Various Artists
Parchman Prison Prayer: Some Mississippi Sunday Morning
Glitterbeat (release date: September 15, 2023)

By Robert M. Marovich

After three years of wading through bureaucratic red tape and then only given a little more than one week’s notice to pack his gear and fly to Mississippi, Grammy Award-winning producer Ian Brennan at last had the permission he needed to spend a few hours recording the singing of inmates at the historically notorious Parchman State Prison.

Opened in 1901, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, aka Parchman Farm, has been the place of confinement for such notable musicians as Son House and Bukka White. White wrote and recorded “Parchman Farm Blues” for OKeh in 1940. It has also come under scrutiny for having one of the highest prisoner mortality rates in the nation and for ongoing riots. Jay-Z famously filed a class action suit on behalf of the inmates due to the “abhorrent” and “barbaric” conditions.

Like a modern-day Alan Lomax, Brennan arranged his recording apparatus and microphone, and invited inmates of the 122-year-old institution who ministered at the prison’s Sunday worship services to step forward and offer a song. Though initially reluctant, one by one they came forward, young and old (28 to 73 years of age), Black and white. Some sang more contemporary gospels, such as M. Kyles, who performed Tasha Cobbs Leonard’s breakout hit “Break Every Chain,” and L. Brown, who covered Hillsong United’s “Hosanna.” Several participants joined in as an anonymous singer/pianist sang a rendition of William McDowell’s “I Give Myself Away.”

Some sang a cappella, and most every voice was tuneful and convicted, with only a few pitchy notes here and there. Fellow inmates accompanied N. Peterson’s “Step Into the Water” with rhythmic handclapping. Likewise, twenty-nine-year-old L. Stevenson sang “I Gotta Run” to handclapping and some improvised bass doo-wopping in the background. Perhaps that basso was M. Palmer, age 60, whose well-below-sea-level voice on “Solve My Need” sounds like it is echoing off the earth’s core. It is the album’s most ethereal cut. “Locked Down, Mama Prays for Me” is a combination song/rap courtesy of Mr. Robinson and A. Warren. D. Thomas’s version of the Williams Brothers’ “I’m Still Here” evokes participatory singing from the makeshift gathering.

The album’s real treat is when the inmates form an informal choir and, to drums, organ, and bass, sing “Jesus, Every Day Your Name is the Same,” a song popularized by Shirley Caesar; and Lee Williams and the Spiritual QCs’ “If I Couldn’t Say One Word.” A vivacious version of the congregational favorite “Lay My Burden Down,” complete with vocals from C. S. Deloch—at 73, the oldest participant—and mighty piano work pulls everyone into the mix.

The starkness of Parchman Prison Prayer as well as the brevity of many of the tunes (I wish we could have heard more), evoke the desolation of incarceration. The juxtaposition of hopeful songs sung in a setting of hopelessness speaks to the resilience of humankind. Just as flowers grow through the cracks of concrete, so some light and life can be found in the most debilitating of environments. This may be the most haunting, the most refreshingly informal, and the most moving album you encounter this year. That was some Mississippi Sunday morning.

All profits from the album will benefit the Mississippi Department of Corrections Chaplain Services.

Four of Five Stars

Picks: “If I Couldn’t Say One Word,” “Lay My Burden Down,” “Solve My Need.”

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Written by : Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.