Music from the Big House

Rita Chiarelli and Ray Jones in Music from the Big House.

During the 1880’s, a former Confederate army officer named Samuel James persuaded the Louisiana state government to let him lease convicts (most of them black) to work his plantation, known as “Angola”, because it was believed that the slaves who once worked there were from that country. After James died, the Louisiana State Penitentiary was built on the site. It was commonly known as Angola Prion. It is said that conditions there were horrendous. It is also believed that the prison played a role in the development of blues music. Leadbelly and other musicians spent time there as prisoners.

The Canadian musician, Rita Chiarelli, visited Angola while she was doing research on the history of blues music. She discovered that some of the prisoners there play blues or country music. She decided to organize a concert in which she would perform with these men. This took a certain amount of courage, considering that these men were convicted of violent crimes. Most of them are serving life sentences.

Of the various people we meet in this film, perhaps the most interesting is Ray Jones, who has been a prisoner at Angola for thirty years. He killed a man during a drunken fight. Jones was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He tells us, “In Louisiana, life means life”, meaning that the parole board rarely shortens convicts’ sentences. Jones expects to spend the rest of his life at Angola. Chiarelli tells us that most of the people we see in this film will probably die in prison. (In one scene, we are shown the prison cemetery.) Not surprisingly, many of them are deeply religious. (Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”) Jones is an ordained minister, and he acts as a spiritual adviser to the other prisoners, as well as being the prison librarian. (I know a man who was wrongly convicted of murder and spent time in prison. He too became a minister.)

Although conditions at Angola have improved since the early twentieth century, it is, like all prisons, a grim place. In one scene we are shown the area in which Jones lives. There are about fifty bunk beds lined up in rows. The prisoners keep their belongings in wooden boxes at the foot of their beds. They have no privacy. We are told that this is actually one of the better parts of the penitentiary. Prisoners are moved here as a reward for good behavior.

The concert scenes are wonderful to watch. Chiarelli is an appealing person, and she develops a real rapport with the prisoners. At a time when there are incessant calls for increasingly harsh punishments for crimes, it is refreshing to see a film that argues for the possibility of human redemption.

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