Their escape plan was simple as it was failproof.
The men, aged 28 to 73, would break free of the prison, acting alone or doing so in ragtag bunches. Either way, they’d soar high above and beyond the maximum-security confines of Parchman Farm—on their voices alone. Although the physical body would remain put behind bars, the unbarred spirit could take flight—albeit temporarily during those few glorious minutes in song. No, not even the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary—that once locked down bluesmen as hard-lined as Son House, Bukka White and R.L. Burnside—is any match for sweet, soul-baring gospel music.
So, one after the other, inmates step up to the microphone and made their getaway.
And global songcatcher Ian Brennan was right there with his traveling recorder. There, behind the razor wire and under watch from the guard towers above, for a few, brief—but triumphant—hours during weekend chapel service in February 2023. Some Mississippi Sunday Morning earwitnesses that great escape.
But then again, Brennan and that inquisitive tape deck are no strangers to setting up shop a thousand miles from nowhere—be that metaphorically or geographically. And given the ongoing laundry list of some of the world’s most uncommon and/or forbidding sites to set up his makeshift recording studio—the Algerian desert (the GRAMMY-winning Tassili); remote villages in Ghana and Rwanda (Funeral Songs, Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?); back-alley Phnom Penh (They Will Kill You, If You Cry)—prison yards shouldn’t raise an eyebrow. In fact, venturing behind detaining gates to inventory inmate soliloquies is old hat for him, having done so for 2015’s GRAMMY-nominated Zomba Prison Project. Except that max-security facility is banished to the desolate recesses of Malawi, rather than the desolate Delta flatland that is Parchman.
Solo, stark, yet warm, “You Did Not Leave Me, You Bless Me Still” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord” float out a cappella. So does “Hosanna,” in spite of the pockets of black silence L. Brown’s pacing intermittently punches in, which become as integral to the overall emotional impact as the very words themselves. Then the bottom drops out. From the center of the Earth, or so M. Palmer’s surreally subterranean bellow sounds, “Solve My Need” gets chanted. Its 97 echoing, rumbling seconds simulate a cavern: You enter it and it enters you. Quite otherworldly.
Sometimes, bare human voices gain a little added thrust. Like the pulsatile wall of handclaps that keeps shoving along “Step Into the Water,” whereas light percussive tapping serves as shepherd for “Falling in Love with Jesus Was the Best Thing I’ve Ever Done.” Differing backdrops, but similar missions for the motion.
Other times, the voices are more than capable of doing all the shoving. The Parchman Prison Choir, in full vocal swarm and clapping frenzy, commands the room, which even includes a piano and drums bonded together in struggling attempt to avoid getting swamped beneath the almighty wave above. For seven unstoppable minutes, “Lay My Burden Down” becomes God’s battering ram.
Still, all that said, the most haunting “break” of all is when someone, unnamed, seated at a piano shedding teardrop notes, sings “I Give Myself Away, So You Can Use Me” in soft, solemn oath, hoping against hope that his ascending plea could be granted if simply repeated long enough and with enough crushing humility.
Parchman Farm fittingly looms just a stone’s throw from Delta blues ground as hallowed as Dockery, Drew and Stovall: Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson and Muddy Waters’ old stomping grounds. Fittingly, because, no matter how much golden, spiritual lift “I’m Still Here” can attain, it, like the 14 other tracks soaring about Some Mississippi Sunday Morning, still retains a deep-blue lining of cold, hard truth in being unable to truly work as a ticket out.
Produced by: Ian Brennan
Released: September 15, 2023
Reviewed by Dennis Rozanski