Angola Prison Worksongs is a harrowing disc to listen to, not so much for the music as because of the circumstances of the recording. These field recordings from Angola prison, circa 1959, are more valuable as a social-historical document than for purely musical value. These work songs are sung by prisoners to the accompaniment of jackhammers, axes, gravel rakes, shovels, and washboards, while the liner notes give a first-person account of a particularly shameful epoch in American penal history. Not exactly "whistle while you work."
The liner notes' attempt to connect these songs with the current crop of prison inmate rap discs seems a bit of a stretch, though, but you do learn the historical context of songs like "John Henry," and "Stewball" (which showed up on a Willie Dixon-Memphis Slim disc). The obvious connection is with blues, and it does fit. There are two adaptations of Eddie Boyd's "Five Long Years" here, with one by Odea Matthews as she scrubs clothes on a washboard, while the other has more local color -- it's not a great leap to hear echoes of Mardi Gras Indian chants in "I Got A Hurtin'," and especially "Let Your Hammer Ring."
There are a cappella vocal exchanges, call-and-response group efforts, the moans on "Alberta Let Your Bangs Grow Long," but it's a disc that pretty much renders musical judgments superfluous. You could say Matthews is the best singer, since her "Something Within Me" is also very nice. The most jarring piece is Murray Macon singing "Jesus Cares," in a light, sweet voice with a stamping press metallically clattering behind him like the forerunner of industrial gospel (if that sound exists; and if it doesn't, here's a roots source to invent it from), or the assembly line hammer-down of Captain Beefheart's "Hard Workin' Man" from the Blue Collar soundtrack. But what does saying that mean in this context?
The four CD-bonus tracks are anti-climactic, and listening to Prison Worksongs will bring you down in the sense that it makes you reflect on ugly, unpleasant truths about aspects of U.S. history. It'll certainly cure any cavalier attitude towards blues lyrics, or apparently innocent Americana imagery, because you'll start thinking twice about how, and where, and why those phrases may have originated.