10 April, 2008

Jailhouse Blues

When I think of live albums recorded in prisons, well, I actually only think of one album: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Forever memorialized in Walk The Line, with Joaquin Phoenix's man in black brooding over a glass of dirty prison water. The album encompasses a fierce country/blues performance in an unorthodox, but appropriate location.

There is another live prison album which deserves just as much of a musical nod as Live at Folsom Prison, and this is Big Mama Thornton's transparently titled Jail. Recorded at two prisons in the 1970s, the album is only seven songs long. Still, it's truly a piece of art, performed with verve by the woman who wrote songs that are now considered some of Elvis Presley's and Janis Joplin's hits.

Jail begins with a rustling harmonica solo, and then the blues rumble hits the ground running. It's "Little Red Rooster", and Big Mama Thornton sings the blues with just as much energy as the harmonica. "Ball 'N' Chain" is the second song, and the one most notably attributed to Janis Joplin. I'm a huge fan of Joplin's work, and I think her voice is an amazing instrument. However, listening to Big Mama Thornton's vocal control over the soft and hard syllables, and her ability to make a song sound variously harsh and sweet, has me convinces that Joplin must have spent hours trying to mimic her. The similarities in delivery are uncanny. The title song rumbles into the third spot, chronicling the boredom, anxiety, and malaise that anyone can imagine taking hold after days spent in jail. We have "Hound Dog" in the fourth spot, and it's notably more jazzy than the Presley version. Listening to Big Mama Thornton belt the song along with the horn line, I felt like I was hearing it the way it was meant to played, and that is an intensely satisfying experience. "Rock Me Baby" has a sloppy quality, that matches Thornton's slurred vocal delivery. "Sheriff O.E. and Me" is carefree, and seems to have a few blugrass elements, although the blues is still strong and the song is far from direction less. Thornton finishes her concert with "Oh Happy Day", which is quite uplifting and spiritually positive.

The greatest quality of Jail, is not the wonderful music it holds, but the genius that guides the organization of the music on the album. The progress of the songs is as delineated as a well-written story. From the wakeup call of "Little Red Rooster", to "Jail"s very own dramatic plateau that corresponds with the middle of the album, and then the grand finale of "Oh Happy Day" that finishes the album with hope. The album succeeds in conjuring various emotions, and focusing on various topics, but never does it become loaded down with bitterness or inappropriate levels of happiness for the occasion. It's a thoughtful album, and it should garner true artistic status along with Live at Folsom Prison.

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