Bukka White - Parchman Farm Blues
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Bukka White dwarfed the old National steel guitar he held so carefully. He admired it even as he tore it to shreds, his thick, black hands wide as railroad ties and the veins that cabled over their sides what tacked them together. White's strumming hand struck at the strings and slapped at the neck while the other hung loosely about the headstock, a long steel slide fitted over his pinky—an alien appendage that crept down the bridge and clawed together notes, their surprise briefly kept and chronicled in the startled-hive couplets that rattled out the National's twin f-holes, awakened, unaware, and angry.
When White sang he wailed; he told stories that began and rarely ended. Most of them chose to drift into nothingness or the archivist's static ambience—whichever came first. Words fell from his mouth and spat back as so much bacon fat popping from a white-hot pan. He'd gargle a phrase, beat it back and forth between his deep jowls and release it, keyed-up and madder than brush snakes kept days to the cage.
There are few tunes as enraged as White's "Parchman Farm Blues," a single recorded in Chicago and cut for OKeh records in 1940, the same year White was released from the notorious Mississippi prison under the supervision of archivist John Lomax. Three years earlier, White had ended a scuffle with a single gunshot and found himself cuffed and downtrodden, taken from his home and held on the "plantation," a prison farm without fences, mocking in its proximity to freedom, loathsome in its refusal to eschew slavery's not-so-distant past.
White claimed he had some fun on the farm: that the guards made sure the guitar found his hands; that he played for inmates and trustees alike; that he learned the rhythms of labor and the call-and-response songs of the chain-gang, voices tailing one another as a fleet of worn hoes broke sun-choked earth. That monotony permeates "Parchman Farm Blues," a song slowly powered by Washboard Sam's steel thimbles, as his fingers rake through the rub, rattling in careful locomotion. White begins not with the crime, but with the sentence, coming to terms with the judge's decision, leaving his wife in tears. "Oh, goodbye wife, all you have done gone / Oh, goodbye wife, all you have done gone / But I hope some day, you'll hear my lonesome song," he sings, his goodbye ululating, undulating, sorrowful. White's emotion is bona fide, his constitution broken, confused. The song itself sounds as if it only could have been recorded on the farm's grounds: White hunched and smothering the National, his baritone big and roaring under the moss-draped oaks while the trustees and their tireless hounds stalk the grounds, their plastic shadows stretching, receding slimly for miles into the plain.
When White finishes the first few verses and takes up in solo, he’s forgotten the trustees, their shouldered shotguns, their baying hounds. His slide runs the neck, cutting calls from the guitar’s hot metal throat. They whip and buzz, like whippoorwills whooping into the humid darkness of the glade. White’s slide recalls sinful, early afternoon whisky, fishing bank-side for dug-in carp and thick whiskered cats, eyeing deeply stained waterholes while time shows itself in shadows and insect bustle, or the steady evaporation of his back pocket pint. The daydream fades into a finger-wagging warning: “Oh, listen you men, I don’t mean no harm / Oh, listen you men, I don’t mean no harm / If you wanna do good, you bettah stay off old Parchman Farm.”
He sings of good and bad, mourning and overcoming, daybreak to twilight, and labor dictated by the sun. An Ecclesiastes worn to the bone and left senseless in life’s random hand dealt as one hurtles toward change and inevitability, grasping vainly for grace, floundering in the steady rot of the day-to-day. White fills the well of “Parchman Farm Blues” with this preaching, shy of three minutes but run stubborn and infinite into time indeterminate. Archivist Harry Smith knew this; his inclusion of White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” in Volume Four of his American Anthology of Folk Music appeared, first face, odd, uneven. Smith must have felt the song a lesson comparable with the pieces it rubbed shoulders with, a bit player in a big tent revival, helmed by a convincing and somber revelator, a voice sweating in its incessant toil and teaching, while the National beat a steady fan—silly, insignificant in woolen, cloaking heat.