John and Alan Lomax collected and recorded dozens of tracks in Texas for the Library of Congress folk song archive, frequently visiting prisons with recording equipment, believing that the insularity of the inmates kept them free of the commercial tainting of radio and the often empty-hearted business side of music. Most of the tracks on this collection, the sixth in Document's field recordings series, were drawn from visits to the Darrington State Farm and the Huntsville State Penitentiary, and it pulls together an impressive assortment of blues pieces, work songs, and railroad chants, kicking off with an unaccompanied, mournful, and emotionally powerful version of "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos," sung by Ernest Williams and James "Iron Head" Baker. Some of the singing here, perhaps due to the plight of being a prisoner, crosses over into the realm of wordless wails and moans, giving tracks like Mose "Clear Rock" Platt's "Barbara Allen" a tone of resolute desperation and longing. Platt manages to turn the lilting melody of this old folk song into a bluesy spiritual, making it stand for deliverance and freedom, sentiments hardly inherent in the lyrics. Henry Truvillion's two hunting songs ("Possum Was an Evil Thing," "Come On Boys and Let's Go to Huntin'") reveal a vocal style that, in mimicking the bray of a hunting hound on the trail of a possum or coon, actually functions like a solitary horn, and what these two pieces lack in melody they more than make up in forceful passion and tone, becoming, in essence, a kind of backwoods jazz. The real find on this disc, though, are the final two tracks, which capture the fascinating world of legendary San Antonio street singer George "Bongo Joe" Coleman. Coleman, although he was a gifted pianist (as the first of these two tracks, "After Hours Improvisation," shows), specialized in homemade percussion instruments he made out of garbage cans and oil drums, and he accompanied himself on these drum rigs in performances that are as unique and amazing as they are difficult to describe. Coleman scat raps, whistles, and hums as traffic passes and car horns blare, deftly catching the minute changes of rhythm in big-city street life. The final track here, Coleman's epic "This Old World Is in a Terrible Condition," is a masterpiece of field recording, an unintentionally postmodern rant on the state of the world that would have made Rahsaan Roland Kirk proud, and the kind of neighborhood that Tom Waits has been renting a place in for years.
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AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett