Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Early In The Morning (Prison Work Song 1947-1948, lyrics & sound file)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases a version of the prison work song "Early In The Morning" that was sung in Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary and recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947-1948. This post includes an excerpt of Alan Lomax's notes about his collection of prison work songs and about "22", the nickname for the lead singer of this version of "Early In The Morning".

The addendum to this post presents comments about cross cutting work songs from Barry Finn, a Anglo-American (deceased) blogger on Mudcat, an online Folk & Blues forum.

The content of this post is provided for folkloric, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are featured in this recording. Thanks also to Alan Lomax for collecting this and other songs & providing commentary about those songs. In addition, thanks to the transcriber of these lyrics, thanks to Barry Finn for his comments, and thanks to MidtempoSoundLabs, the publisher of this sound file on YouTube.

for a pancocojams post about the Johnny Moore version of "Early In The Morning".

From Negro Prison Songs — Mississippi State Penitentiary
1957 - Tradition TLP 1020 LP
recorded by Alan Lomax in 1947 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, Mississippi.
"These recordings were made in 1947 in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. The singers were all Negro prisoners, who, according to the practice of Mississippi, were serving out their time by working on a huge state cotton plantation in the fertile Yazoo Delta. Only a few strands of wire separated the prison from adjoining plantations. Only the sight of an occasional armed guard or a barred window in one of the frame dormitories made one realise that this was a prison. The land produced the same crop; there was the same work for the Negroes to do on both sides of the fence. And there was no Delta Negro who was not aware of how easy it was for him to find himself on the wrong side of those few strands of barbed wire...

I went back to the Mississippi pen with the first portable tape machine that came on the market, for I wanted to record the sounds that were always too rich to be well recorded by the disc machines of former years. Even in 1947 I could see that the custom of work-song singing was dying out at Parchman, where we had recorded our finest singing in the early '30's. The old-timers had lost their voices, and most of the young prisoners regarded the practice as "old fogeyism."
The young prisoner "22" was an exception; he had developed a new style, (contrast Band 1, Side B to Band 4, Side B) but he could not tell me whether he was "bopping" it or not. I suspected he was. In any case, his bunch produced a polyphonic style that seems remarkably African — perhaps yet another instance of the ever-fresh spirit of Africa at work in the New World. More importantly. these songs, coming out of the filthy darkness of the pen, still touched with exquisite musicality, are a testimony to the love of truth and beauty which is a universal human trait."..."

[Early In The Morning is a] "Prison work song, also known as The Woodpecker and perhaps also as Ro-Berta.

Field recording made in 1947 by Alan Lomax (1915-2002) at Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm), released on the album Negro Prison Songs in 1959. Lomax's field recordings were well-known and influential in the American and British folk scenes.

A number of prison worksongs entitled Early In The Morning have been collected by folklorists, but this one is clearly the source of the song recorded by British r&b bands in the 1960s. Lobby Loyde of Australia's Purple Hearts also knew this traditional song."...

SHOWCASE EXAMPLE: Prison Songs - Early In The Mornin'

MidtempoSoundLabs, Uploaded on Mar 26, 2009

Recorded over 60 years ago at Parchman Farm: "these songs belong to the musical tradition which Africans brought to the New World, but they are also as American as the Mississippi River."
- Alan Lomax

LYRICS: EARLY IN THE MORNING (1947-1948 Parchman Farm version)
(sung by “22”, Little Red, Tangle Eye, and Hard Hair, accompanied by double cutting axes)

(1st Verse)
Well, it’s early in the morn –in the morning, baby
When I rise, Lordy mama
Well, it’s early every morning a-baby
When I rise well-a well-a
It’s early in the morning, baby
When I rise, Lordy baby
You have-, it’s I have misery, Berta,
Wa, in my right side
Well-a, in a my right side, Lordy baby-
R-in-a my right side,Lordy, sugar.
Well, it´s I have a misery, Berta,
R-in-a my right side, well-a.

Well-a, it's-a, Lordy,
Well, it's Lord (you keep a-talkin'), babe,
Well, it's Lord, Ro-Lordy-Rosie,
Well, it's, o Lord, Gal, well-a.

(2nd verse)
Well-a, whosonever told it, That he told a- he told a dirty lie, babe.
Well-a, whosonever told it, that he told a -he told a dirty lie, well-a.
Well-a, whosonever told it, that he told a -he told a dirty lie, babe.
Well the eagle on the dollar-quarter,
He gonna rise and fly, well-a.
He gonna rise and fly, sugar.
He gonna rise and fly, well-a.
Well the eagle on the dollar-quarter, He gonna rise and fly, well-a.


(3rd verse)
Well-rocks ’n gravel make -a
Make a solid road
Well-a takes a-rock –a gravel make a
To make a solid road, well-a
It takes a good lookin woman to make a
To make a good lookin whore
Well-a It takes a good lookin woman, Lord, Baby
To make a good lookin whore, Lord sugar
It takes a good lookin woman to make-a
To make a good lookin whore, well-a


(4th verse)
Boys, the peckerwood a-peckin' on the-
On the schoolhouse door, sugar.
Well, the peckerwood a-peckin' on the-
R-on the schoolhouse door, Well-a.
Well, the peckerwood a-peckin' on the-
On the schoolhouse door, sugar.
Well he pecks so hard, Lordy, baby,
Until his pecker got sore, well-a,
Until his pecker got sore, Lordy, baby,
Until his pecker got sore, Lord, sugar.
Well he pecks so hard, Lord, mama,
Until his pecker got sure, well-a.


(5th verse)
Well, hain't been to Georgia, boys,
but, Well, it's I been told, sugar.
Well, hain't been to Georgia, Georgia.
But, it's I been told, well-a.
Well, haint been to Georgia, Georgia.
But, it's I been told, Lord, mama.



Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Prison Work Song
From: Barry Finn
Date: 16 Jun 09 - 07:46 PM

.... the "Early In The Morning " (you may have to scroll up a bit) song that Ken [Schatz] & I both do is a double cross cutting song, the fastest of the prison worksong. You might want to give that one a listen just to compare the differences between the 2 songs.*

Where logging the axe comes down between the legs making the arc that the blade trave[l]s longer [.] the cross cut is a sideways swing into a standing tree in order to fell the tree. The "double" comes in when instead of 4 men standing at the 4 compass points around the tree you have 8 man at the same compass points so the doubled up men are working back to back swing in opposite directions & as one swings into the tree the opposite is bring the axe back out [.] If they struck together, no problem but whenb [sic] they both brought the axes back out their axes would cross & clash. Newbies wen't [sic] allowed to just get in on the action, they had to be brought along so that they would learn the ropes in order to survive mishaps.

So the beat between a cross cut doubles in tempo when you double cross cut"
The spelling & punctuation additions to this comment that I included are given in brackets. I think that those errors occurred for no other reason but a rush to type & share his thoughts online.

Here's an excerpt from an earlier comment that Barry Finn wrote the night before about other "Early In The Morning" prison work songs:
Subject: ADD Version: Early in the Morning
From: Barry Finn
Date: 15 Jun 09 - 11:48 PM

"There are 2 different distinct prison worksong by the name of "Early In The Morning". Both Ken & I do one, sometimes together, sorry it's not the one you're looking for.
The one you're looking for is found as you know on the Alan Lomax Collection--"Southern Journey, Vol. 5: Bad Man Ballads" recorded at Camp B Lambert, Miss on Sept, 1959 from the singing of Johnny Lee Moore & group.

It can also be found sung slightly different but used for the same type of work (logging-standinng on a felled tree after it's branches have been cleared & chopping down, with the axe between one's feet in order to cut the long log into small bits- a moderatly paced song) on "Prison Worksongs on the Arhoolie lable (CD-448) recorded at the Louisiana State pen at Angola by Dr Harry Oster 1959, ffrom the singing of Johnny Butler & group. Also on, & most recently collected by Bruce Jackson on Rounder records at the Ellis facility in Texas on March 1966. This recording can also be found in Jackson's accompanying printed collection under the same title name as the CD "Wake Up Dead Man" still very much available on CD (CD2013) & in print on page 269-273) published by Harvard University Press 1972. This was collected from the singing of Willie "Cowboy" Craig & group"...
Read that Mudcat post for more commentary about and lyrics of versions of "Early In The Morning" prison work songs.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Thanks for posting and compiling this information. What gems the singing and recordings are

    1. I appreciate your comment, anonymous.

      Yes, these recordings are gems. Thanks goodness for those who sang them, their collectors, and YouTube!

  2. This is incredible. I plan on using this in my high school history class sometime this spring. We'll be focusing on the unfortunate forced imprisonment of so many African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. This song is riveting.

    1. Greetings, Unknown.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Your history class sounds interesting. I'm curious is this is a public or private school in the USA or elsewhere. Unfortunately, I doubt that most history classes in either system covers this subject.

      As a matter of record, Barry Finn, the Mudcat commenter who is quoted in this post passed away a few years ago. I knew him from the years that I also posted on Mudcat. For the record, he was White.

      That fact matters somewhat to an African American because, given the terrible history and present day conditions of systemic and personal racism that Black people and other People of Color faced/face, it's good to know that there are some good White people in the world. When I was in college (during the 1960s civil Rights era after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated) I remember consciously looking for good White people to prove to myself that all White people weren't racist. I'm sorry that this may still be the case for my two year old granddaughter.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. At Kevin's request, I deleted his comment that included his email address. Here's the rest of his comment:
      "Kevin VanderportenJanuary 12, 2016 at 12:18 PM

      Hello Azizi,
      I am a history teacher with the Chicago Public School system. For the record, I am white but have always had an intense interest in African-American history. I'm particularly fascinated by the debt peonage system that developed in the South after the Civil War. I'm sure you've heard of the book "Slavery by Another Name" by Douglas Blackmon. He goes quite in depth on this topic. I would love to talk more about race, culture, and the teaching of black history... Thanks for sharing this wonderful information! It will be helpful when I teach the Reconstruction Era. My personal favorite. Have a wonderful day. -Kevin

  3. Hello Azizi, i thank you the lyrics of this awesome song, and also the interesting quotes of the critics. I find myself notorius the ensamble and the canon they do in chorus, and the mood, takes me to the bitter and sweet of being alive.

    1. Hello, Sergio Sánchez Bustos.

      Thanks for your comment.

      It's important that people now and in the future known about prison songs such as "Early In The Morning" and their history.

      Best wishes!

  4. This is a great find for me. About 30 years ago a friend and I used to tape radio shows by Alexis Korner (British blues musician and general good guy). This was the only place, the only media to hear anything like this. I remembered the name 'Little Red' and tracked this page down. I'm still mates with my friend and I know he's going to like seeing the lyrics and the other info. Mr Lomax, what a great thing he did.

    1. Greetings, Bill and also greetings to your friend ALexis Korner.

      I'm glad that you found this post.

      I appreciate all of the composers, singers, and collectors of this music. It's just so sad to think about the circumstances in which this music was created and sung...

  5. This is an amazing website and collection. Your articles flow like chapters in a book. I’m impressed with your writing style and topic selection. Also, I look forward to continuing posts.

    1. Thanks for your compliment, Jude Lieber.

      I love researching information about the topics that are showcased on pancocojams and appreciate learning more information about them from pancocojams readers.