Work Songs

Go ‘head marry don’t you wait on me oh-ah 
Go ‘head marry don’t you wait on me well now 
Might not want you when I go free oh-ah 
Might not want you when I go free well now 

O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah 
O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well now 

Raise them up higher, let them drop on down oh-ah 
Raise them up higher, let them drop on down well now 
Don’t know the difference when the sun go down oh-ah 
Don’t know the difference when the sun go down well now 

Berta in Meridian and she living at ease oh-ah 
Berta in Meridian and she living at ease well now 
I’m on old Parchman, got to work or leave oh-ah 
I’m on old Parchman, got to work or leave well now 

O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah 
O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well now 

In January 1901 the state of Mississippi purchased land in Sunflower County for a prison. The Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm or simply Parchman, became the main hub for Mississippi’s penal system. Parchman Farm was in many ways reminiscent of a gigantic antebellum plantation and operated on the basis of a plan proposed by Governor John M. Stone in 1896. By 1917, Parchman was separated into twelve male camps and one female camp, and racial segregation was considered of paramount importance.

The convicts worked ten hours a day, six days a week, and slept in long, single-story buildings commonly called “cages” that were constructed of bricks and lumber produced on site. Most male prisoners were employed in farming, but some also worked in the brickyard, sawmill, cotton gin, and prison hospital. Because of the remote location and vast size of Parchman Farm, a sophisticated system of walls and fences was considered unnecessary. Prison officials would employ convicts they considered trustworthy as armed guards. These prisoners were known as “trusty guards” or “trusty shooters” and were separated from the general prison population.

Folklorists from the Library of Congress and other institutions came to Parchman beginning in the 1930s to document the pre-blues musical forms of field hollers and work songs, which survived due to the prison’s relative isolation from modern cultural influences. Folklorist Alan Lomax observed that such songs “revived flagging spirits, restored energy to failing bodies, [and] brought laughter to silent misery.”

In The Piano Lesson, Doaker, Boy Willie, Lymon, and Wining Boy sing a rendition of a Parchman Prison work song, Berta, Berta. It is one of various musical moments in the play, and it serves as an outlet for male bonding among members of the Charles family.

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