Art students call the infinite picture-within-a-picture “The Droste Effect,” after the design on the packaging of a Dutch cocoa powder introduced around 1909.
The idea is certainly much older, having appeared in an altarpiece in the apse of the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in the 14th century. Italian painter Giotto included in his Stefaneschi Tryptic the eponymous Cardinal holding a smaller image of the work. The work was preserved through the destruction of the Old Basilica and remains in a Vatican art museum.
The technique is best known to record collectors for its appearance on Best of Friends, the groundbreaking psychedelic rock album by the Smurfs released on the progressive Starland Music label in 1982.
Its awesome cover only hints and the mind-expanding masterpiece contained within illusive copies of Best of Friends, which of course was named the #1 most important album of all time by Rolling Stone upon its initial release.
The technique also appeared on a far more conventional album by Pink Floyd ten years earlier. The first copies of this album included a copy of the soundtrack to Gigi, which had to be withdrawn for copyright complaints, leaving only a blank album jacket in subsequent pressings like the one seen here. The best thing about the Ummagumma‘s jacket is that they have fun with the Droste effect by changing the position of the Pink Floyders in each reproduction of the image, suggesting an infinite cycle, or perhaps endless overlapping realities.
Our in-house design team (ie our friend Paul) used the Droste effect on the jacket for Live at Hymie’s, an LP+DVD we released this past Record Store Day. He placed the album in one of the shelves in the shop, originally because we asked him to cover up a Mylon LeFevre album because, well ugh, Mylon.
We’re pretty proud of this compilation, but it’s no Best of Friends.
Monday’s post about prison records included several poems read by Pat Parker at the Women’s Jail in San Bruno, California. One of these makes reference to George Jackson, who also appeared in songs by Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Dylan, Archie Shepp, and others. His writings were enormous influential during the movement to advance prisoners’ rights.
Jackson was eighteen years old when he was accused of stealing seventy dollars from a gas station. Although the case was not strong, his court appointed attorney convinced him to plead guilty because he had a record of petty crimes. He was given an indefinite imprisonment sentence of one year to life, meaning that the State of California would determine the duration of his sentence based on his conduct while incarcerated. This is a real thing that exists in the country where we live.
He spent more than a decade in prison, first at San Quentin. Due to disciplinary infractions he was not eligible for release, and instead spent much of his time in solitary confinement. Jackson studied radical political theory, once writing, “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me.” His became less of a disciplinary problems and more of a theorist. He wrote to friends and supporters detailed descriptions of the conditions inside San Quentin, and later Soledad, and also eloquent descriptions of daily survival in the face of oppressive racism. His letters to friends and supporters were collected and published in 1970 as Soledad Brother, selling four hundred thousand copies.
Most of today’s black convicts have come to understand that they are the most abused victims of an unrighteous order. — George Jackson
Jackson and two other prisoners were accused of killing a white guard at Soledad on January 17, 1970. The details of the case are murky at best, and when it finally came to trial the state of California was unable to prove its case. An effort was made to bring the three suspects before secret hearings in Salinas County, but before the third such hearing one of the other inmates was able to get a note to his mother, who secured the help of a state senator and an attorney. This attorney argued the reason the three were accused was not due to the presence of any evidence, but because they had been identified by the correctional authorities as militants.
Their case became a cause célèbre, but before it could come to trial there was a hostage situation and shootout at a Marin County courthouse created by Jackson’s seventeen year old brother, Jonathan. Three prisoners and a Judge were killed in the escape attempt.
Just over a year later, Jackson himself was killed in an escape attempt at Soledad, under circumstances which have long been the subject of question and speculation. The late, eminent James Baldwin put it best when he wrote, “No black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they told us he died.”
The most famous event in the aftermath of Jackson’s death was the Attica Prison uprising, which began two weeks later. The subsequent hostage negotiations and violent conclusion, in which ten guards and thirty-eight prisoners were killed in a siege of the prison approved by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, put the brakes on the prisoners’ rights movement.
“So what is to be done after a revolution has failed? After our enemies have created a conservative mass society based on meaningless electoral politics, spectator sports, and a 3 percent annual rise in purchasing power strictly regulated to negate itself with a corresponding rise in the cost of living. …What can we do with a people who have gone through he authoritarian process and come out sick to the core!!!” — George Jackson
Still, prisoners and their advocates had established, most often through the courts, the defense of their basic human rights, as well as the opportunity to improve themselves through means which were unimaginable even a decade earlier. While many advancements remained — and still remains — to be done, the American correctional system moved away from the ‘hands off’ 19th century model which saw prisoners as little more than potential labor.
The largest setback for the prisoners’ rights movement in the years since was a 1996 law passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton. The only law of its kind in the western world, the Prison Litigation Reform Act severely limits the access prisoners have to the legal system, including those detained and awaiting trial who are presumed to be innocent. The result has a been a precipitous decline in civil rights cases brought by prisoners, and alarming changes to the conditions inside prisons. Through the PLRA, prisoners who have been sexually assaulted have had their cases thrown out because they did not adequately exhaust all available administrative means prior to filing a suit. Other prisoners whose religious liberties have been restricted have had their cases thrown out because they were not physically injured.
If George Jackson were alive and seated at his typewriter today, he would certainly continue to write about the institutional racism which led to inevitably destroyed lives such as his own, but he would also decry the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
The United States makes up about five percent of the world population, but more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners. There is no precedent for the extraordinary increase in incarceration in our country, and its consequences could be catastrophic. An absolutely alarming article published by The Atlantic Monthly last year detailed the devastation our mass incarceration has brought on African American families, where prison life is increasingly becoming ubiquitous. One in four black men born after 1970 will, by his thirties, have been imprisoned in this country.
The prison industrial complex is essentially hidden, as far as affluent Americans are concerned. You might be surprised to learn that last year President Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison. Clearly we don’t want to see what’s going on, or even hear about it. In spite of the success of prison-set television programs like Orange is the New Black, the omnipresence of bars in the lives of America’s disenfranchised hardly appears in our pop music these days. This wasn’t always the case.
It seems likely that when we suggest the subject of prison records, you’ll expect us to post a song from Johnny Cash’s two live albums, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. They’re classic country albums and all, but we could never take Johnny’s prison persona as seriously as he seemed to himself — the closest Cash came to doing time in the sixties was waiting for his meth dealer.
After Merle Haggard passed away earlier this year, each obituary (including ours) mentioned that he was inspired to join a prison band after seeing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin on January 1st, 1958. Haggard was no stranger to prison, having done a couple stretches before he was arrested in Bakersfield after attempting to rob a roadhouse. An escape attempt at the Bakersfield jail earned him a trip to San Quentin, but it wasn’t Cash’s performances which really set him on the path to redemption. It was an encounter with Caryl Chessman, known for his 1954 memoir Cell 2455, Death Row.
Chessman’s case captivated the push to abolish capital punishment in the United States, at a time when most other western nations were moving towards abandoning it. Ronnie Hawkins even recorded a song about Chessman in 1960, just a few months before he was executed at San Quentin.
Merle Haggard wrote a number of songs about his experiences, and was rightly remembered for how honestly he captured the trials and troubles of the disenfranchised. His story is inspiring, as are many stories which come from prisons. It’s no accident that two of the most significant works of American literature — Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail — were both written behind bars. Our interest today, then, isn’t songs like Merle’s “Mama Tried,” which are about prison, but rather records which were actually recorded by prisoners.
The first of these is Any Woman’s Blues, which was recorded on New Years Eve 1975 at the Women’s Jail in San Bruno, California. It’s a pretty remarkable record, although not a perfect fit for our purpose today because in addition to former prisoners, the performances on Any Woman’s Blues include professional musicians as well. Several of the women who founded and recorded for Olivia Records appear, notably Cris Williamson, Linda Tui Tillery and Holly Near. The lesbian-oriented label was on of the most successful independents of the seventies.
The album was released by the Women’s Prison Concert Collective, which was supported by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Their commitment to improving the lives of incarcerated women is evident in the album’s insert, which includes a list of things one can do to help and where you can find more information.
Incidentally, here in Minnesota one thing you can do is support the Women’s Prison Book Project. It may not seem like much to provide reading material, but it often provides an important resource for an even more marginalized population. There are more than 150,000 owmen in prison and jail in the United Sates, and eighty percent of them are serving time for non-violent crimes. Of the remaining, most were convicted for defending themselves or their children from abuse. More than half of the women in prison are women of color, and two thirds of them have one or more children under the age of eighteen. According to their website, “the WPBP works to support prisoners; and through that solidarity works to empower prisoners themselves and build connections through prison walls.”
We remember accepting donations to their program when we volunteered at the now-closed Arise Bookstore. Today you can contact them through Boneshaker Books, a really great place just up in Seward not far from our shop.
That first song from Any Woman’s Blues is written and sung by Gwen Avery. Her signature song, “Sugar Mama,” appeared on Olivia Records’ Lesbian Concentrate compilation and she toured with Tillery and Mary Watkins, but she did not make an album of her own until almost twenty-five years later.
This second selection from Any Woman’s Blues is poetry read by Pat Parker. One of the poems is particularly moving, as it is written about her older sister, who died at the hands of an abusive husband. “Womanslaughter” protests the one-year sentence her sister’s killer received, remarking with scorn that “men cannot kill their wives / they passion them to death.”
This next record is by Glen Shirley, who had no idea he was to become a famous country songwriter as he sat in the front row of Johnny Cash’s famous performance at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. Cash explained what happened without Shirley’s knowledge in a 1994 Life magazine interview:
The night before I was going to record at Folsom prison, I got to the motel and a preacher friend of mine brought me a tape of a song called ‘Greystone Chapel.’ He said a convict had written it about the chapel at Folsom. I listened to it one time and I said, ‘I’ve got to do this in the show tomorrow.’ So I stayed up and learned it, and the next day the preacher had him in the front row. I announced, ‘This song was written by Glen Sherley.’ It was a terrible, terrible thing to point him out among all those cons, but I didn’t think about that then. Everybody just had a fit, screaming and carrying on.
The memorable closing track on Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison put Shirley on the country music map, and later a hit recording of his song “Portrait of my Woman” by Eddy Arnold helped propel his career further, even though he was still incarcerated for a failed armed robbery. He recorded an album at Folsom Prison for Mega Records in 1971, and was released later that year.
Cash met him at the gate, and invited him to join his House of Cash organization as an opening performer and songwriter. Shirley hosted the performances in the documentary Flowers Out of Place, which featured Cash, Roy Clark and Linda Ronstadt. His behavior, which included violent threats, concerned Cash’s crew, and he was eventually fired.
Shirley was working for a cattle company in May 1978 when he shot a man in a drug-fueled rage. Two days later he took his own life in his brother’s house in Gonzalez, California. Cash paid for the funeral expenses, but effectively ended his involvement in prison reform after Shirley’s death, and never performed for prisoners again.
Perhaps the most popular prison recording of all time was made by John Lomax and his son Alan on a portable aluminum disc machine on loan from the Library of Congress. At Angola State Prison the folklorists found Huddie Ledbetter, later known nationwide as Lead Belly, who made a number of recordings for them during his time for an attempted murder.
It is believed by some that a recording Lead Belly made in prison, delivered to the Governor by the Lomaxes, hastened his early release, but records show he was already eligible because of good behavior. The most famous of the songs he recorded for the Library of Congress was one he’d been singing for more than twenty years, “Goodnight Irene.” This song is, of course, where the record shop’s li’l Boston Terrier Irene gets her name.
This last record, Ain’t Got Time to Lose, features blues, folk and country songs written and performed by inmates and former inmates of the Oklahoma Correctional System in 1980. Leo Chandler, who served as production director as well as performing one of the songs on the album, describes the project in its liner notes:
For years Institution Programs Incorporated has developed and conducted arts based programs within the framework of the Oklahoma Prison System. Because of financial limitations, these programs have not reached all eligible inmates. The idea of a convict album was conceived to share the talent that has existed inside the prison.
It was not an easy task to arrange for security to transport men and women from different institutions across the state to a recording studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to finalize the project. Yet, with the extra effort and cooperation of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, it happened!
All income generated by this album, except for production costs, will go to the expansion of the prison arts programs. These programs offer projects in visual art, literature, drama, music, design and continuing humanities dialogues.
Creativity can be developed through discipline, and I feel that discovering one’s own potential brings self-esteem. This album is an entertainment package and consists of more than one style of music. It is comprised of the stories, joys, the sadness and frustration, triumph and humor of people in prison. It is a sincere attempt for these people to financially support their own redirective programs.
Several songs express the successes of such a program, such as Chandler’s “Looking for a Better Way to Live” and Harvey Smith’s “Oh Lord Help Me.” Others, like “Crow in a Hickory Tree” by Bill Baker, are just fun songs which otherwise might never have been heard outside of Oklahoma. There are several gospel songs on the album as well, notably the beautiful song at the beginning of this post which was written and performed by Kim Holloway.
There seems to be no slowing to the police killing of African American citizens, with two alarming incidences this past week. The rapidity with which the Tulsa County prosecutor has charged officer Betty Shelby in the shooting of Terrence Crutcher is progress of some kind, but somewhat of a pyrrhic victory in that the 40 year old Crutcher did not survive. In issuing the charge, the prosecutor said in part that Shelby “reacted unreasonably by escalating the situation.
Police in Charlotte, North Carolina have taken a different — and if we have learned anything from the past couple year, divisive and potentially harmful — approach by refusing to release video of the killing of 43 year old Keith Lamont Scott on Tuesday. This, naturally, has led to widespread protests in the city of more than 800,000, which is about 35% African American. The city is also the site of the terrifying and tragic mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last June.
Protest and unrest in Charlotte recall the powder keg climate of the late sixties, and police and city leaders there seem unaware their response is likely to, in the words of Tulsa County prosecutor Steve Kunzweiler, “unreasonable … escalate the situation.”
This title song from former Count Basie Orchestra saxophonist Frank Foster’s 1972 album, The Loud Minority, seemed fit for today’s paper. We can’t say we always agree with the tactics chosen by protestors, but we can say with certainty that we agree with the urgency with which their voices should be heard. To turn a deaf ear has become tantamount to escalating the situation.
Its humbling to think of a record you owned as a child as a ‘classic,’ because it really couldn’t be that old, could it? Turns out License to Ill, really is thirty years old this November. When the Beastie Boys albums came back into print on LP a couple years ago — have you heard? Records are coming back — this one, released by Columbia, was not in the mix.
It’s surprisingly difficult to find a nice copy of License to Ill, considering there are over ten million copies of it out there. Presumably, a lot of those are cassettes, because that’s how we listened to this album when we were pre-teens. It could also be because people played the hell out of this album.
License to Ill is finally being reissued next month, which is sure to introduce the album to as many new fans as it delights old fans like us. The album was produced by Def Jam in its early NYU infancy, and was the first rap album to reach #1 on the Billboard chart. It was also a completely unique blending of genres.
Like many kids in the 80s, we were introduced to the Beasties by MTV. And now, our kids have discovered their records through this hilarious video.
License to Ill will be back in stores, including ours, in the middle of October!
Ask any small record label here in the Twin Cities and they’ll tell you new singles are a tough sell. Most collectors interested in hearing new music are more inclined to buy albums, and most 45 collectors have little to no interest in new music. Like so many aspects of running a record label, singles become a labor of love.
Some do sell well for the labels, like for instance the single of two new songs by L’Assassins released by Piñata Records around this time last year. The band isn’t playing anymore, but the records are nearly sold out, and for good reason. We loved the single’s b-side from the first time we heard it (and posted it here), even ultimately choosing “Liar” as our favorite local song of the year.
Our in-house label (creatively named Hymie’s Records) released its second single last month, featuring two great new songs by Tree Party. And there have been several other great singles from Twin Cities labels this year, including another with a b-side that’s one of our favorites right now.
Both sides of this single are excellent, and on this record they’re joined by occasional member Kyle Sobczak, of Rupert Angeleyes and formerly Sleeping in the Aviary (both great groups but we’re really going overboard with the links today). The a-side is really a cathier pop tune, but something about the ‘moodiness’ (they are called Teenage Moods after all) of “So Low” has really hit a sweet spot here. You can stream the other tune, “Sadness,” here, and that’s the second to last link for today, we promise.
If you like Teenage Moods, your next chance to hear them here in town is Saturday October 8th at the Cedar Cultural Center, where they’re opening for Bambino. And the details for that show are on the Cedar’s website here, and that’s our last link for today.