PHOTOGRAPH | BILL STEBER
HOUSTON INSTITUTE FOR CULTURE | FEATURED ARTIST
Parchman Penitentiary, Parchman, MS, 1997
Parchman penitentiary is located on 20,000 acres in the heart of the Delta and since the turn of the century it has remained one of the most feared institutions in the state. A totally self-contained working farm and miniature city, Parchman is the "county farm" referred to in dozens of blues songs written through the years. William Faulkner called Parchman "destination doom" and author David Oshinsky described it as "the quintessential penal farm, the closest thing to slavery that survived the civil war." It was in prisons like Parchman that the work chant, a series of rhymed song couplets used to synchronize mass work, survived the longest. The work chant used the African-American musical call and response style as it's base and the song leader's use of off-color lyrics and spontaneous creativity were archetypes that found wide-spread use in the blues.