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John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

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A Second Story of the Blues

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.

This 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.

The Southern 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.”

Copyright © 2000 Max Haymes. All rights reserved.

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