I got lucky last summer when I got my time …
The words come naturally to Charles Neville, the memory as strong as when he was an inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary here.
… my partner got a hundred, I got 99.
Neville, the second oldest of New Orleans’ famous Neville Brothers, was only 20 when he was sentenced in the early 1960s to five years at Louisiana’s maximum-security prison for possession of two marijuana joints.
Then, all he wanted to do was complete his time so he could get back to his musician’s life.
“But I learned the songs when I was here,” the 77-year-old musician said to a roomful of people in the Angola Museum. “That was one of the songs they sang here.”
His brother, Aaron, who also served time at the prison, recorded the song under the title “Angola Bound” on his 1991 solo album, “Warm Your Heart.” That music played as the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum Foundation opened its Biennial Louisiana Corrections Symposium, “Angola Bound Revisited: Prison Music of Louisiana,” earlier this month.
The program featured Neville and Adam Machado, of Arhoolie Records, film director Benjamin Harbert and an afternoon of concerts by inmate bands. NPR’s “American Routes” host Nick Spitzer kept the program moving.
Spitzer’s staff spent the afternoon recording the bands for a future edition of his Saturday night show.
But first, Neville recounted his time at the 18,000-acre prison, known as Angola, a peninsula of sorts, bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River and by the Tunica Hills on the fourth.
And sugar cane was the main crop on prison grounds during Neville’s time.
Bluesmen Robert Pete Williams, Hogman Maxey and Robert Welch also were spending their days in prison cutting cane when LSU English Professor Harry Oster recorded them with an Ampex 500 tape recorder. Their music — especially Williams’ — would flourish through Oster’s recordings, earning them spots on the list of blues legends after their release.
Machado said that between 1956 and 1963, Oster set out to preserve the songs inmates sang in the field, including “Angola Bound.”
Most of the time, Machado said, Oster would pull the men from the fields, setting them up in a studio-like session.
Which made sense to Neville when the old recordings were played.
“I came here in 1963, after Harry Oster was here,” Neville said. “But we never sang together as one group while we were out in the field. We were in smaller groups, and they may have sang the songs, but we didn’t sing together until the last day, when the last stalk of sugar cane was chopped.”
Still, Neville remembers all the songs, which are now being edited by the San Francisco-based Arhoolie Records.
“Smithsonian Folkways has bought the Arhoolie catalog,” said Machado, who sits on the Arhoolie Foundation Board of Directors. “Now that the Smithsonian is on board, we can get these songs out there.”
Oster followed the lead of John and Alan Lomax, who stopped at Angola in 1934 to record prison songs. Perhaps their greatest contribution to music history was the discovery of Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, whose legend has him winning a pardon from Gov. O.K. Allen after a personal performance of “Goodnight Irene.”
History says otherwise, as prison records show Ledbetter was released early for good behavior.
But legend has a way of trumping fact, and Lead Belly’s tall tale has only added to the popularity of his “The Titanic,” “The House of the Rising Sun” and the prison folk song, “Midnight Special.”
And though Oster was interested only in the vernacular in the 1950s, jazz was being played in another section of the prison at the time, led by big band musician Les Winslow.
Film director Harbert said Winslow was a Monroe native who had traveled with Bob Hope’s orchestra. A 1950 conviction on check fraud landed him in prison, where he was put in charge of the music education program.
Winslow also formed the prison’s big band, the Cavaliers, which was so popular that it was in constant demand at events outside the prison.
And later there were the Knick Knacks, which brings the story back to Neville.
“We were the band for rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues, as well as jazz,” Neville said. “I was head of the music department, and I had to have a knife — I had to be armed for awhile.”
The reason: The prison was still segregated, and black and white musicians didn’t play together.
That has long since changed, evidenced by the bands performing on the day of the symposium in the main prison’s chapel. Blacks and whites came together to sing rock, blues, gospel and country. One inmate in the Dixon Correctional Institute band even channeled Lead Belly with “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
But in the early 1960s, it took a white musician approaching Neville to break the ice.
“He said he came from a family that taught him that black people didn’t have the mind capacity that white people had,” Neville recalled. “But then he said after seeing what I could do on the saxophone, and he couldn’t figure out how to play something on the guitar, what did that say about his mind capacity if mine was supposed to be less?”
From that moment on, Neville said, blacks and white came together in the music room with a goal of producing good music.
Neville was released in 1967, but he sat in with the prison musicians during the symposium’s afternoon concerts.
Drummer Calvin Lewis, with inmate band the Jazzmen, stands in awe after performing with Neville. He’s a Houston native with a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He didn’t say what landed him in Angola but mentioned that he has five years left to serve.
“I play in both the Jazzmen and the traveling band called the Guts and Glory Band,” Lewis said. “When I came here, I didn’t know they had a band. Music changed everything here, and today I was able to play with Charles Neville.”
Neville also considered the performance an honor.
“I’ve come back to Angola with my brothers to play a concert, and I came back once with Aaron,” he said. “But I’m always happy to play with these guys. They’re all great musicians.”