"Sweet Land of Liberty"

DATELINE:  May 4, 2001
Angola, Louisiana

Midnight Special

uddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, was in and out of trouble and prison much of his life.  He is famous for his music, infamous for his ability to escape prison both on foot and by making musical pleas to state governors.  John and Alan Lomax discovered Leadbelly in 1933 here at Angola where he was serving a prison term for attempted murder.  They recorded, among other things, Leadbelly's plea for clemency.  A year and a half later after the Lomaxes played this recording for the Louisiana governor, Leadbelly was a free man.  He asked John Lomax for work and became the Lomax's driver.  They took him to New York City where his influence upon the folk music scene is legendary.  He lived there on the brink of poverty, until his death from Lou Gehrig's Disease in 1949.

Clearly the world is a richer place because of Leadbelly's ability to remember melodies and songs of a folk culture that would have been lost had it not been for his acquiring ears.  Clearly…. ?

It's difficult to reconcile Huddie Ledbetter's genius and the beauty he brought us, to his life peppered with violence.  Angola offers a moment to reflect upon the often neglected faces of life, art and difficult questions.

Midnight Special
        Rock Island Line
                 Good Night Irene...

Foggy mornings provide a sense of mystery.  My brother and I truly had no idea what to expect, taking Highway 61 down from Natchez and then along back roads toward the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.  Around one bend a low water bridge, through thick air and small communities, rolling past beautiful lands.  The fog burned off early, and we arrived at the prison gate greeted by blue skies and uniforms. 

Angola is a maximum security prison that encompasses some 18,000 acres.  Somewhere I read that makes it the largest prison by area in the entire world.  On this day Angola houses 5108 prisoners serving life sentences.  Life here, means life.  Angola is bounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and on the other by the treacherous Tunica Hills.  We go through a shake down, leave all our maps and our camera with the gatekeepers and meet Carmen, our escort.  She makes arrangements for us to take our camera inside.

Angola is a large farm, producing vegetables for the entire prison system in Louisiana.

Carmen has prepared to take us to record where we can hear the prisoner's working in the fields, but we ask instead if there is someplace with shade from the heat of the Angola sun.  She takes us to Butler Park named for the former warden who had the park built as part of an incentive program that became a model for prisons nationwide.  Prisoners who have become trusties and who go for an entire year without disciplinary problems are allowed to use the park for special visits with family members.  There are picnic tables and grills, see saws and swing sets.

Throughout our recording session Carmen patiently waits with us, and when we're finished she escorts us back to the gate, allowing us to stop and take a few photographs of the beautifully kept grounds. 

Reflecting on our brief stay at Angola, it's hard to reconcile the physical beauty of this place with the fact that it is a maximum security prison.  For a few short hours one morning, Butler Park offered us inviting shade and a gentle breeze.  In our life journey, this was hardly a whistle stop, but for the 5108 souls living within razor wired compounds, the image of Butler Park, the meaning it must hold  and the moments some have spent there are all things that leave my imagination lacking. 

Dare I  think of beauty -- a concept fraught with paradox?  As I write this, my computer pauses to remind me that it's time to save my work.

Copyright 2001 Thomasfilms, Inc.