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Crime and Prison Songs: “Prettiest Train”


From the 1870’s to the 1920’s, some Southern states contracted their convicts out to private landowners and companies to perform heavy labor, such as timbering, mining, railroad work, and farming. Little to no concern was given to the prisoners’ safety or health, and they received inadequate food, shelter, and clothing. Because the convicts belonged to the state, the landowners who leased their labor could essentially work the prisoners to death.

The contracting of prison labor created a need for prisoners. If the convict labor supply ever dipped below demand, local sheriffs would simply provide a new supply of convicts by framing and arresting African-Americans for loitering, idling, trespassing, or even failing to surrender the sidewalk to a white person. People who were big and strong were particularly vulnerable to arrest due to the increased value of their labor output.

The prison work song “Prettiest Train”–after recollecting some of the joys of life outside of prison–discusses the ease with which African-American men were arrested and sent to work on prison farms. Alan Lomax recorded a version of the song sung by a prisoner with the nickname “22” when he visited Parchman Farm in the 1940’s.

To learn more about the use of prison labor in the South and to hear “22” sing the prison work song “Prettiest Train,” click on the audio link associated with this post.

African American convicts working with shovels, possibly at Darrington State Farm, Texas, 1934 - Library of Congress

Prettiest train that I ever seen, man.
Prettiest train, my Lawd, I ever seen,
Prettiest train, Lawd, ever seen,
I ‘clare, she run down to Jackson, back to New Orleans,
New Orleans, a-New Orleans.
I swear she ran down to Jackson,
Back to New Orleans.

Mattie, when you marry, marry a railroad man, (3)
I declare, no ev’y day Sunday, dollar in your hand,
In your hand, in your hand!
I declare, no ev’y Sunday, dollar in your hand!

Mattie, when you marry,
don’t marry no convict man, (2)
I declare now, ev’y day Monday,
hoe handle in your hand,
In your hand, in your hand!

Prettiest woman that I ever seen, (3)
I declare now, Rampart Street-a,
down in New Orleans,
New Orleans, a-New Orleans,
I declare now, Rampart Street,
Down in New Orleans!

You go to Jackson just to show your clothes, (3)
I go to Jackson play them dicin’ holes,
Dicin’ holes, dicin’ holes,
I declare now, I go to Jackson, play them dicin’ holes.

You go to Memphis, don’t you hang around, (3)
I swear now, polic’ll catch and you’re
workhouse bound,’
Workhouse bound, workhouse bound,
I swear now, police’ll catch and you’re
workhouse bound.

"Lightnin'" Washington, an African American prisoner, singing with his group in the woodyard at Darrington State Farm, Texas - Library of Congress

Parchman Farm was located 90 miles south of Memphis in the Delta region of Mississippi and was created by James Kimble Vardaman after he became governor in 1904. The prison farm was divided into fifteen camps over 46 square miles, and cotton was planted on several thousand acres.

Prison farms were run much like antebellum plantations. Crops were grown in practically the same way as they were back in the nineteenth century, and the punishments and rewards given to convicts were similar to those handed out to slaves. By 1915, Parchman was turning a profit for the state. The system at Parchman did not end until 1972, when a lawsuit finally forced the farm to morph into a modern prison facility, although this change happened slowly.