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Angola Prison Blues

From film to recorded music, Angola is both feared and celebrated

Courtesy Louisiana State Penitentiary
Click here to order this poster

Courtesy Louisiana State Penitentiary Click here to order this poster

At the terminus of Louisiana Highway 66, just northwest of St. Francisville, the Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka “Angola” or “The Farm”) looms on the horizon, surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River. Notorious for the brutality that took place throughout much of its history, Angola at one point was called “the bloodiest prison in America.”

Lately, though, Angola has been in the spotlight for a different reason: its prison rodeo. Held the third weekend in April and every Sunday in October, the Angola Prison Rodeo has been the subject of more than a few films. Most recently, writer and director Jeff Smith’s Six Seconds of Freedom was an official selection at the 2008 Jackson Hole Film Festival. Smith also directed the video for The Over Mountain Men's song Angola, which features footage from the film.

But Angola frequently appears in another medium — music. Perhaps the most famous former resident of Angola, Huddie Ledbetter — better known as Lead Belly — served more than four years for attempted homicide in the 1930s.

In 1932, father and son musicologists John and Alan Lomax (son Alan was just 18 years old at the time) visited Angola and recorded hundreds of Lead Belly’s songs on portable aluminum disc recording equipment, among them the classic “Goodnight Irene.” These prison recordings were the basis for a massive six-volume series and now reside in the Library of Congress. Lead Belly’s music went on to have a profound impact on country, rock, blues, and folk music.

Tex-Mex guitar player and country singer Freddy Fender spent nearly three years in Angola for a marijuana conviction in 1960, but his classic “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” was actually written the year before his stint in prison. He struggled for years after his incarceration but finally found success in 1975 when his version of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” became a hit.

Today, Angola is the only prison in the country with an FCC radio license — KLSP (Louisiana State Penitentiary) 91.7 FM broadcasts from inside the penitentiary to thousands of listeners inside and outside the prison walls. Operated by inmates, KLSP is also known as the “Incarceration Station” or “the Station that Kicks Behind the Bricks.”

Take a listen to any of the vintage field recordings that John and Alan Lomax and others made during the 1950s and you’ll get a stark view of Angola’s past. But if you want to see today’s Angola, just watch the inmates riding in the prison rodeo — or check out the broadcasters on KLSP. For the length of a bull ride or the spin of a record, they try to keep the Angola prison blues away.


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