Officially known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman Farm is a prison that is run like a plantation. Founded in the early 1920’s as a way of producing a massive cash crop at almost no expense, Parchman served a social function as well. In Jim Crow Mississippi, it didn’t take much for a black man to be sent to the “country farm.” The threat (and reality) of Parchman was a way for Mississippi to enforce Jim Crow policies. Once there, prisoners were subjected to slavery like conditions, with racial segregation and arbitrary punishment. Unlike most prisons, Parchman had no fences and no guards. It was miles upon miles of endless farm-land, nothing but flat open space with nowhere to hide. Escape was further deterred by Parchman’s famous bloodhounds and the trustee system. Instead of paid, trained correction officers, Parchman empowered certain prisoners to serve as trustees.
Trustees were armed, and kept watch over the prisoners, shooting any that they deemed in the act of escape. There’s freedom all around at Parchman, but not a single hope of escape. The experience became a metaphor for African-American life in the Delta in many blues songs. Bukka White, who served time in there in 1939, cut the legendary tail of despair, “Parchman Farm Blues.” With White’s song, as well as the prisoner’s countless stories, Parchman has cemented its place in blues lore.
Parchman’s direct cotnribution to blues lies in the work and chain-gang songs that were sung by its prisoners. In order to keep up with the rigorous demands of the overseer, inmates sung work songs in the call and response model. With a leader calling out the cadence, workers would follow in turn, often using their pick axes to keep the rhythm.