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Musician, folklorist and champion of the vernacular Pete Seeger died Monday. His legacy is formidable. The New York Times wrote:

His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.

Part of Seeger’s widespread collection of folk songs took him, in March 1966, to the Ellis Unit of Huntsville Prison in Texas.

He traveled south with his wife and constant ally Toshi and their son Daniel. Bruce Jackson also joined them.

Afro-American Work Songs In a Texas Prison (30 mins.) documents the music African American prisoners used to survive the grueling work demanded of them. The prison work songs derive directly from those used by slaves and plantations and those directly from West African agricultural models.

Bruce Jackson wrote in his notes about the film:

“Black slaves used work songs in the plantations exactly as they had used them before they had been taken prisoner and sold to the white men. The difference was this: in Africa the songs were used to time body movements and to give poetic voice to things of interest because people wanted to do their work that way; in the plantations there was added a component of survival. If a man were singled out as working too slowly, he would often be brutally punished. The songs kept everyone together, so no one could be singled out as working more slowly than everyone else.”

Mechanization and integration of farming and forestry methods would soon lead to the disappearance of the work songs. There was an urgency to record them.

I spoke with Jackson in late 2011, when he said, “It is, to my knowledge, the only treatment (of that genre and era) that had ever been done. It was Pete’s idea and Pete paid for it.”

Seeger understood the contradiction. A significant type of folk music — a music that reflected the very survival of an oppressed group — was soon to be consigned to the history books, and yet that loss signified an improvement in their circumstances. As the film’s narration notes:

“The songs are still there but sometimes something is missing. The urgency is eased. Gone is that tension born of the original pain and irony of the situation that a man who could not sing and keep rhythm might die. The prison is the only place left in the country where the work songs survives. And it’s days are numbered. Another generation or two and its only source will be the archives. But given the conditions that produced the songs and maintained them for so long one can hardly regret their passing.”

Seeger understood people’s stories are wrapped up in their art. And with it their dignity. His curiosity was a rare and beautiful thing.

Watch: Afro-American Work Songs In a Texas Prison 


Bruce Jackson is a prolific prison photographer. Most of his work was made in the sixties and seventies in the South, from his Widelux images at Cummins Prison, his collected mugshots from Arkansas, his 1977 book Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary (Cornell) and his very recent 2013 book Inside The Wire (University of Texas Press) about Texas and Southern prison farms. Bruce Jackson’s book Wake Up Dead Man (University of Georgia Press) is a highly recommended study of work songs in Texas prisons.

“Jackson and Christian have pulled back the proverbial curtain so that all can see the American Way of Death.”
Mumia Abu-Jamal

In the 1979, Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, a husband-and-wife documentary and research team conducted one of the largest (photographic) surveys of prison life. Jackson and Christian used photography, film and interview to understand and illustrate life on cell block J in Ellis Unit – the Death Row of the Texas Department of Corrections.

Their new book In This Timeless Time (University of North Carolina Press) offers an unflinching commentary on the judicial system and the fates of the men they met on the Row. You can see a gallery of 20 photographs from In This Timeless Time here, and an edit of 74 on Jackson’s own website here.

In This Timeless Time includes a copy of Death Row (1979) a film made by Jackson and Christian (trailer below). In This Timeless Time is also available as an e-book.

To coincide with the release Jackson and Christian have done a couple of interviews.

The first Listen, Read: Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian on Their New Book, “In This Timeless Time,” and Jackson on Curating “Full Color Depression” is with the Center for Documentary Studies (also abridged and in the online version of Document, Spring 2012 CDS Quarterly Newsletter.)

A second, very comprehensive interview Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian discuss Death Row in America is on the website of publisher University of North Carolina Press.


In This Timeless Time includes 113 duotone photos, all accompanied by explanatory text, sometimes of considerable length. The book is divided into three significant sections.

First is a survey of their work:

“Instead of just showing those men as they were then and printing in another section their words about their condition then, this book tells what happened to each of them: who was executed, who got commuted, who was paroled and who, after more than two decades on the Row, was found to be innocent,” say Jackson and Christian.

Second is a look at capital punishment across the United States since Gregg v. Georgia (1976) in which the Supreme Court ruled states could resume executions.

Third, Jackson and Christian talk about their own role as practitioners, academics and documentary makers.

“Usually with books like this, you just get a book about the subject with nothing about the intelligence that produced it, or the politics that produced it, or the work that produced it. We thought that should be part of it, too,” says Jackson.

I think this is incredibly significant inclusion. I approach photo-criticism with the assumption power is implicated in its manufacture; I want to turn the lens 180 degrees – so to speak – and investigate how those images came into existence. Jackson and Christian want to talk about relationships, want to talk about their privileged access and reinforce the issue of subjectivity. They made a body of work no one else could and others would make a body of work they could not.

This third introspective, “meta-documentary” section of the book distinguishes it from other books of prison photographs. I’ve yet to get my hands on a copy, but expect a book review in late 2012.


Bruce Jackson,  a writer and documentary filmmaker and photographer, is James Agee Professor of American Culture and SUNY Distinguished Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Diane Christian, a poet, scholar of religious literature, and documentarian, is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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