The Louisiana State Penitentiary — also known as Angola Prison and nicknamed “The Alcatraz of the South” — is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. Located on the former site of a plantation owned by slave trader Isaac Franklin, it might seem an unlikely source for redemptive music. But while on her long journey along Highway 61, Canadian blues musician Rita Chiarelli felt compelled to visit Angola, whose dark history of crushing labor and sexual slavery arguably make it the nation’s most notorious prison. That visit led to Music From The Big House, a documentary that follows Chiarelli to Angola and shows that, like Antebellum slaves, inmates throughout the prison’s 100-plus years have taken solace in song and created a rich musical history in frightful circumstances.
The prison’s unique musical history features several huge figures in the broader narrative of American music, including famed father-son folklorists and sound archivists John and Alan Lomax, who, while recording unadulterated plantation-era folk songs at Angola, discovered a 45-year-old inmate named Huddie William Ledbetter — better known as Leadbelly — who was serving a four-and-a-half-year sentence for stabbing a white man in a fight.
It was this heady background that initially drew Chiarelli to Angola. As chronicled in Music From The Big House, she went on to play and ultimately perform a concert with (not for) the current inmates of Angola. The documentary, filmed by Bruce McDonald, explores not only Chiarelli’s profound experience “in prison” — it also shows the awesome power of blues and gospel in a dark place frozen in time.
Music From The Big House will screen at 4:30 p.m. at O Cinema on Saturday, July 21, and Sunday, July 22. We have two tickets to the Sunday screening to give away to one of our readers. To enter to win, shout out your favorite blues/gospel song in the Facebook comment section below (with the “Post to Facebook” box checked). We will announce the winner on the Beached Miami Facebook page on Friday afternoon. Until then, here’s a bit of Leadbelly to tide you over.
Update: And the winner is … Misha Grosvenor!