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Prison-to-College Pipeline brings the Blues to Parchman Farm

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARCHMAN FARM BLUES")

BUKKA WHITE: (Singing) I'm down on old Parchman farm. I sure want to go back home.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In 1940, a blues musician named Bukka White recorded "Parchman Farm Blues" about the infamous prison labor farm in the Mississippi Delta.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARCHMAN FARM BLUES")

WHITE: (Singing) But I hope someday I will overcome.

CHANG: Today, a program at the University of Mississippi has brought blues music back to Parchman. Inmates are taking a college credit course about the blues tradition in American literature. And as John Burnett reports, they know a lot about the blues.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Nine big men sit attentively at their desks inside the prison. They're wearing green-and-white striped pants and shirts with MDOC convict stenciled on the back - Mississippi Department of Corrections. Their crimes range from drug possession to armed robbery to homicide. But inside this austere classroom, they're just college students. The idea of this course is to explore how the themes of the blues - bad luck and trouble, sexual escapades and euphoric freedom - get expressed in literary forms.

ADAM GUSSOW: So we're doing Hurston today. You've got the Hurston book?

UNIDENTIFIED INMATE #1: I got my Hurston book today (ph).

GUSSOW: Good.

BURNETT: On this day, Adam Gussow, a professor of English and Southern studies at Ole Miss, is teaching Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece "Their Eyes Were Watching God." It's about a Black woman's turbulent coming of age in 1930's rural Florida. The protagonist, Janie, goes through three husbands. The last one is a rogue and a blues musician named Tea Cake.

GUSSOW: Tea Cake deepens Janie's blues feelings. Tea Cake teaches Janie all about the blues in a particular way - he loves her, and then he leaves her, and then he comes back. That's an incredibly bluesy moment, and I'm going to show you - connect it with some music.

BURNETT: Gussow opens his laptop and clicks on a link to "Bumble Bee Blues," recorded by Memphis Minnie nearly a hundred years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUMBLE BEE BLUES")

MEMPHIS MINNIE: (Singing) Bumblebee, bumblebee, where you been so long? Bumblebee, bumblebee, where you been so long? You stung me this morning. I've been restless all day long.

BURNETT: You stung me this morning, she sings, I've been restless all day long.

GUSSOW: This is a song about a man putting desire in a woman.

UNIDENTIFIED INMATE #2: Right.

GUSSOW: Right?

UNIDENTIFIED INMATE #2: Right.

BURNETT: An inmate named Christopher Bradley raises his hand.

CHRISTOPHER BRADLEY: They're just saying that when he leaves, she miss him. Just like, hey, man. Man, I miss my baby. I'll be glad when she get home from work.

BURNETT: For these students, the blues songs may be new, but the feeling is all too familiar. In order are Ledale Williams, Mitch Price and Joe Westbrooks.

LEDALE WILLIAMS: I never looked at the blues the way I look at the blues now. Like I say, just the trials and tribulations, just being here for almost 29 years, since I was a child - so that's blues in itself.

MITCH PRICE: My mother is the daughter of a sharecropper, you know? And that's what they did in the fields. They sung the blues, you know, at the end of the rows, at break time, when they're eating bologna and crackers and cheese. It's part of my history because I used to hear my family talk about these things, so...

JOE WESTBROOKS: You know, there's more to just listening to the blues when you live the blues 'cause, you know, that's our everyday life. You are oppressed daily by being incarcerated.

BURNETT: Professor Gussow knows the music both as a scholar and a world-class harmonica player. He has taught this course, the Blues Tradition in American literature, for 25 years, but never before inside a prison.

GUSSOW: If you know something about the blues - and, of course, the blues is not just the music, but it's also a life lived hard.

BURNETT: Gussow says his typical college undergrads are young with limited life experiences. His Parchman students are grown men, most of them Black and imprisoned.

GUSSOW: Certain of our students said basically, look, I know about the blues. And they don't mean the music. In some cases, I've taught them things about the music per se that they may not have known. But they all have just taken that term and applied it to the life challenges that they've had and the negativity that they've dealt with.

BURNETT: Parchman Farm, officially the Mississippi State Penitentiary, sprawls across 28 square miles of America's musical bottomland. Beyond the tall fences and concertina wire, past the green crop fields, are the little agricultural towns that produced some of the greatest bluesmen who ever lived - B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House and Robert Johnson. But life inside the Parchman prison colony was brutal. The institution was set up as a huge state-run plantation. Chain gangs did mandatory field work. Harsh discipline was meted out by the guards and by trusty convicts. Inmate Mitch Price remembers those times.

PRICE: The penitentiary here in Parchman was called camps for a reason. They were work camps, which you would sort of say symbolizes slave camps. They put them here to pick cotton, and they would whip them with actual whips.

BURNETT: Forced farm labor ended here in the mid-2000s, but problems persist. Last year, the U.S. Justice Department released a scathing audit that concluded inmates still live in, quote, "a violent and unsafe environment." A spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections said that federal report does not reflect improved conditions in recent years. He pointed to accreditation in January by the American Correctional Association, the first time in nine years.

The University of Mississippi has offered college courses inside Parchman on Shakespeare, Mississippi writers, the civil rights movement and now the blues. The award-winning program is called the Prison-to-College Pipeline. Patrick Alexander, associate professor of English and African American studies at Ole Miss, is the program's director and co-founder. Alexander says education can play a role in how well an offender does when they reenter society.

PATRICK ALEXANDER: We have one student who's gone to Mississippi College. And he traces not just the assignments or the books, but the opportunity to be seen as a leader, something that is not necessarily going to happen when you're inside of Parchman.

BURNETT: In mid-May, these students will don caps and gowns and attend a graduation ceremony inside the prison for completing the three course hours. In addition to learning about the blues literary tradition, they get a taste of playing the blues.

GUSSOW: All right. So here's what we're going to try to do. We're going to try to do a little call and response. And so I'm going to tap my foot, and I'm going to take the four draw. Can everybody go (plays harmonica)? Just find the four draw.

UNIDENTIFIED INMATES: (Playing harmonicas).

BURNETT: The students are not allowed to take their harmonicas back to their living quarters. So the only practice on the mouth harp they get is during these weekly classes.

GUSSOW: (Playing harmonica).

UNIDENTIFIED INMATES: (Playing harmonica).

GUSSOW: (Playing harmonica).

UNIDENTIFIED INMATES: (Playing harmonica).

GUSSOW: All right. Give yourselves a round of applause.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED INMATE #3: That sounded good.

UNIDENTIFIED INMATE #4: Good job.

GUSSOW: That's the best we've done.

BURNETT: A muscular man with a white goatee and glasses stands up. Arthur Gentry, 65, has been locked up at Parchman for more than four decades. He breaks into spontaneous song with an updated version of the "Parchman Prison Blues" (ph).

ARTHUR GENTRY: (Singing) I got the penitentiary blues. Day in, day out, all through the night, feel the blues (laughter).

BURNETT: For NPR News, I'm John Burnett in Parchman, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARCHMAN FARM BLUES")

WHITE: (Singing) Oh, hear, listen, you men. I don't mean no harm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.