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Producer Ian Brennan Shares his Experience at Parchman Prison
and the Inspiration That Was Inscribed There
(by Lee Zimmerman)
Not since Johnny Cash recorded his iconic concert at Folsom Prison, or David Crosby spent time behind bars making music with his fellow inmates, has incarceration provided such inspiration for recording an album. Nevertheless, Parchman Prison Prayer — Some Mississippi Sunday Morning is culled from the same tattered firmament. Recorded at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison by Grammy-winning producer, author, and journalist Ian Brennan, it features the voices of its prisoners — solo, acapella, and in sacred circles.
While it may have seemed a formidable task, Brennan was clearly up to the challenge. After all, he was already well-versed in World Music and in tapping into the traditional, having sat behind the boards for over forty international albums in the past decade alone, music birthed in the nations of Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Cambodia, Romania, Pakistan, Ghana., Comoros, and Djibouti in particular.
Consequently, Ian Brennan opted to skip a soiree at the Grammys and venture down to Parchman Prison, a place with a decidedly unlikely musical connection. At one point, it housed such iconic individuals as Blues greats Son House, Bukka White, and Mose Allison, and even Elvis Presley's father Vernon Presley at one point. Consisting of a series of work ‘farms’, it’s sprawled across 28 square miles and houses both men and women who are serving time on death row.
Indeed, it’s a harrowing destination, given that it’s located in the midst of Mississippi’s swampland at the end of a two-lane road. Founded in 1901, it has the dubious distinction of being the state’s oldest penitentiary, one that boasts some of the highest prisoner mortality rates in the nation while also being the site of frequent riots. Those are especially daunting statistics considering the fact that Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the country, and that the prison is in close proximity to the town of Money, Mississippi, the place which will forever bear the scars of Emmett Till’s murder. It’s also near the site of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and the sacred soil where Muddy Waters was raised, Sam Cooke and Ike Turner were born, Bessie Smith died, and Robert Johnson famously sold his soul to the devil when he came to the Crossroads.
Ian Brennan had attempted to get access to the prison for several years, and when he was finally allowed to enter, he achieved his takeaway by capturing the voices of those who were termed society’s worst rejects and outcasts — rapists, murderers, and child molesters begging to exorcise their sins with voices that cried out for salvation and redemption.
Whether the Lord heard them or not is a matter of conjecture, but given Brennan’s efforts at recording them for posterity, a wider audience is now able to receive them. ‘These were voices unchained, if only for those few hours’ Brennan writes. ‘A vocal breadth of freedom otherwise denied and restrained’.
The Alternate Root recently had a chance to talk to Ian Brennan about the experience and how it transpired. In the process, he offered insight into what can only be termed a most extraordinary encounter.
What inspired you to do this project in the first place?
Since 2009, my wife Marilena Umuhoza Delli, and I have been actively trying to provide platforms for less represented regions, languages, and populations. That began with meeting and then recording the Folk trio of genocide survivors, The Good Ones, in Rwanda which is where Marilena’s mother is from. To date we’ve done over forty albums across five continents with artists from smaller nations like Comoros, Djibouti, and Suriname.
Even so, this must have been one the most far-flung encounters you’ve ever experienced…
We try to focus on populations that are often minoritized within their own nation (like with fra fra trio in northern Ghana where less than three percent of the citizens speak the Frafra/Farefare language). In the past few years, we’ve also turned our attention to those who are often marginalized in the USA— like with members of the developmentally-disabled community — who my sister is a member of — and the unhoused/homeless in Oakland, where I was born. But no matter where you go in the world, prisoners tend to be rendered the most invisible— literally and physically segregated from society.
You skipped the Grammys to go to Mississippi. Were you up for an award?
I won a Grammy in 2012 with Tinariwen and I’ve produced three other Grammy-nominated records — with the Zomba Prison Project in 2015, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in 2006, and Peter Case in 2007. A friend had invited me to attend the Grammys this year as I was in California at the time, but I had just that day and a half off and I chose to fly overnight to Mississippi instead, and be with the men. I am so glad I did. Meeting them was a very moving experience.
How did you prepare for this project? What sort of hoops did you have to jump through to make it happen? And what sort of technical preparations did you have to make?
It took over three years of advocating to be granted the opportunity to record with the men. I began the process in late-2019 and then covid hit, so that delayed things even more. Mostly, it just required a lot of persistence to make it happen. As far as the technical aspects, I agreed to bring in very minimal equipment. Within ten minutes of arriving at the prison, I’d setup and we were recording. Then we kept on going straight through until our time was up a few hours later, and then I tore down and repacked the equipment haphazardly, ran to the car, and raced the two hours to the airport to make my flights back to the west coast for work the next day.
Was the prison hierarchy -- the chaplains aside -- supportive overall?
Yes, the new administration has made many direly needed Johnimprovements at the prison over the past three years.
Who do you see as the audience for this recording?
I have faith that every generation has a core of hardcore music lovers who tend to gravitate towards and find timeless music— be that Nina Simone, Pavement, John Coltrane, or Nick Drake, et al. Certainly, this album is true Roots music, but I think the honesty of the men’s voices transcends genre.
You seem to be on a constant mission to bring the world music from these other spheres. What inspires your quest in general?
I believe we have an ethical and moral duty to listen to those who tend to be listened to the least, and who are often even ignored, dismissed or maligned. It is we the listeners that benefit immeasurably from allowing ourselves to be open to as diverse a range of perspectives as possible.
Do you see these as specialized endeavors, novelty efforts or part of a certain continuum -- and if the latter, what would it be?
My goal is to make music that its imbued with life and humanity— anti-AI music that reflects a specific time and place, and that places voices in the foreground. But simultaneously, through that specificity, the music bears a universality that often resonates much longer through the years than the latest trend or hype, and therefore can achieve a certain timelessness, and even potentially improve with age.
How did you decide on the songs you would include? And how much prep and instruction did the prisoners need?
The record represents the almost nonstop recording that occurred, with the final song on the album also having been the climactic number that was played, and during which every single person present participated. The only direction I ever give artists is that ‘there are no mistakes’ and ‘don’t try to play ‘good,’ but instead as badly as possible’. And I offer the occasional encouragement, since often the strongest singers emotionally are the most humble and reluctant. Like on the song “I Give Myself Away”, the singer— who chose to remain anonymous— was playing piano and trying to teach another person the song. But he sang it so beautifully, I pleaded with him to do the song himself, even though he insisted he wasn’t ‘a singer’. His performance ended-up being one of the most devastatingly poignant on the album.
Were you intimidated at all, either by the prisoners or their surroundings?
I believe that we should fear every one and no one at the same time. Statistically, we are most often injured in situations that we’ve underestimated, more than those that we actively fear, and as a result, prepare for and attempt to prevent. My goal is to seek the goodness in, and healthy aspects of, any and every person. All of us are comprised of both good and negative elements, albeit in varying and fluctuating proportions. Having worked in locked psychiatric settings in Oakland since I was a teenager, institutional environments are somewhat familiar to me, and therefore, maybe less mysterious and daunting than for others that have not had that experience.
What crimes were these prisoners incarcerated for?
Almost everyone at Parchman is there for violent crimes, since it is a maximum security prison and it also houses the death row for the state. The majority of the inmates involved were there for murder and some for sexual assault.
You’ve mentioned that the US has the highest rate of imprisonment per capita in the world. Yet some would argue that if they did the crime, they should do the time. What’s your reaction to that?
There has to be a balance. Laws and corrections are present in every society in some form. But the goal for a truly just society is to function in as humane a way as possible, and to take actions that are constructive and sustainable versus vindictive. There are a lot of things that nations could aspire to be number one at, but excessively imprisoning their fellow citizens is an ill-advised goal and an extremely shameful and dubious distinction.
Furthermore, history demonstrates that far too many imprisoned individuals are not only innocent, but also, there are others that have deliberately taken the blame for their former friends who rarely reciprocate any such loyalty.
The incarceration rate in the USA has quadrupled since 1980. That mirrors precisely the dawn and arc of hyper-capitalism ascension. More than half of the families of those incarcerated have less than half the wealth of those who are not incarcerated. And African Americans are incarcerated at over five times the rate of White Americans. Mississippi itself has the highest rate of poverty and the highest percentage of African American citizens of any state.
These are massive inequities that have no place in a democracy and should not be politicized. They are mathematically undeniable.
Are any of the participants now eager to possibly pursuing musical careers? What do you think the prisoners got out of this experience, and, in fact how were their lives changed?
One elder had been a “rock and roll” singer in his youth. But the majority I think were singing for the benefit of their own spirit and for each other, and this is evident in their performances.
Anything you'd like to add?
I had no idea what I would find there, but I went in with a blind faith that their voices mattered. The men exceeded my best-case expectations by miles. We recorded the same Sunday as this year’s Grammys were held, and I told the men at the end of our meeting that there would be no better performances that night at the Grammys, and I meant it. Their voices possess a degree of intimacy and vulnerability that is rarely found anywhere.
Listen and buy the music of Parchman Prison Prayer: Some Mississippi Sunday Morning from AMAZON
For more information, please visit the Ian Brennan website
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