Saturday, March 7, 2009

Parchman From the Inside

Mississippi State Penitentiary Bands
LP Parchman From the Inside
under the direction of Wendell B Cannon
#30331/2 - Rite account # 5096;

The album was cut in Jackson at Malaco Records by label owners Tommy Couch, Sr., and Gerald “Wolf” Stephenson.

Track listing :

Side A: 1. I'll Take You There 2. Leave That Liar Alone 3. Forgetting You 4. Lean On Me 5. Parchman Farm 6. Let's Stay Together

Side B: 1. My Hang-Up Is You 2. Poor Side Of Town 3. To Get To You 4. Last Thing On My Mind 5. Best Dressed Beggar In Town 6. Peace In The Valley

Scott Barretta :

Established in 1904 as a for-profit operation, the twenty thousand acre Mississippi State Penitentiary, aka Parchman Farm, functioned much like an antebellum plantation where inmates worked sun-up to sundown, six days a week. Absent were the high walls that defined most prisons; instead, guards—or “shooters”—used their rifles at their own discretion to deter would-be escapees. Punishment for lesser infractions was often meted out by “Black Annie,” a three-foot-long, four-inch-wide leather strap that hung from camp sergeants’ belts. In general, the prison was infamous for its brutality, as detailed in David Oshinsky’s book Worse Than Slavery and sung by bluesman Booker “Bukka” White, who served three years there in the late ’30s: “Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm/If you wanna do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm.”

In 1960, under the watch of a reform-minded superintendent, a Delta planter and former state senator named Fred Jones, a prison band program was launched as one of several progressive steps that sought to improve Parchman’s cruel image. “Self-expression by these prisoners goes a long way toward keeping them in good spirits,” Jones told one reporter. “The musical program is good for their morale and the morale of all our inmates.”

Two bands were formed, consisting mostly of the prison’s professional or semi-professional musicians—a white country & western band known as the Insiders, and an African-American r&b band called the Stardusters. The leader of both bands was Wendell Cannon, a twenty-seven-year-old rockabilly musician from Leake County.

Cannon’s father was a guitarist, and his uncle Fonzo was a member of Freeny’s Barn Dance Band, which recorded six sides for Okeh Records in 1930. As a young man, Cannon performed solo on local radio stations, and later fronted Cool Cat Cannon and the Crackerjacks, whose regular spot was a roadhouse just over the Madison County line, where chicken wire protected the band from flying bottles. “The fights were the floor show,” recalls Crackerjacks sax player Woody Coats. “The band just backed ’em.”

One of Cannon’s admirers was fellow Carthage native and Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, who enlisted the Crackerjacks to warm up crowds during his 1959 campaign. Barnett, later known for battling the federal order to enroll James Meredith at Ole Miss, suggested his penal philosophy with such statements as “The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him.” Upon election, Barnett rewarded Cannon with the band-director position at Parchman Farm, while Cannon’s wife, a nurse, was given a job at Parchman’s clinic. They moved with their baby daughter, Dede, into housing on prison grounds, and were soon joined by other relatives.

Initially the prison bands held just two practice sessions a week. After six months, they were booking gigs outside the prison almost every weekend.

In November, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that the Insiders had logged three thousand miles on the road in three months and were appearing frequently on television. The bands’ ability to travel beyond Parchman was predicated upon their designation as “trusties,” prisoners who were given special rights for good behavior. Many trusties worked as the personal servants of prison employees, while others—often convicted murderers—served as armed “trusty-shooters” who oversaw the general population of field hands. Female inmates, meanwhile, lived in a separate camp, where their work included sewing the uniforms that identified each prisoner’s status.

John « Flash » Gordon ex-insider :

We had a great music program at Parchman and that was the turning point in my life. We were able to play music all over the state and even out of state. The band was called The Parchman Band. It was a very good band and we inevitably gained a lot of attention from the media and many politicians. We had a three piece horn section that was very good and, we had several dancing girls! We had awesome guitar players that could play anything! We had two great keyboard players and a lead foot drummer reminiscent of John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. We also had many talented singers. Our band was a show band. We played for three Governors. We mostly played the county fairs and conventions, but we also did many music festivals to include, Memphis in May, Day In The Park in Laurel, The Chicken Festival in Forrest, The State Fair in Jackson, The Shrimp Festival in Biloxi, the Jimmy Rogers Music Festival in Meridian and many smaller festivals around the state. The band was directed by a man named Wendell Cannon. It was a very productive program with an extremely low recidivism rate. We did over a hundred gigs a year for the first five years I was in the band. The last few years of my incarceration, we did close to two hundred gigs a year. Mr. Cannon is no longer alive but his legacy lives on through the many musicians that he inspired. In my book, I cover the first twenty eight years of my life. My book ends the day I got released from prison, over nineteen years ago! I haven't spent one hour incarcerated since then.


  1. This was 11 years ago! I never released the book! After editing it I may release it soon with a new CD!

    1. Mr. Gordon, I am a history professor doing research on the history of Parchman farm in the 1960s and 70s, in particular the practice of inmates leaving prison for programs such as these. Incarcerated people these days have little to no chance of visiting the "free world" and I am interested in how that changed. Would you be willing to be interviewed about your experience?