A Hundred Years of Music in the Country’s Largest Maximum-Security Prison
Benjamin Harbert’s new book Instrument of the State offers a sweeping account of more than a century of musical history at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, colloquially known as Angola.
This book represents the culmination of more than decade of Harbert engaging in intensive research and ongoing collaboration with incarcerated individuals.
“When I was first introduced to Benjamin J. Harbert, I thought he was just another person that would come in, take pictures and tell us what he wanted—and that we would never hear from him again,” wrote Calvin Lewis, a drummer for the Angola Jazzmen Band in a foreword for the book. “But he continued his communication with the musicians and continued to come back… In our eyes, he’s a person that incarcerated musicians in Louisiana prisons can call a friend.”
The History of Angola
In 1870, Samuel L. James, a former Confederate officer, won a contract from Louisiana to lease the state’s prisoners and force them to work. A decade later, James moved his operation to the former Angola plantation, so-named for the country from which a majority of the enslaved people were taken.
In the early days, state prisoners were housed in slave barracks and put to work growing agricultural products like cotton. Today, the Louisiana State Penitentiary persists. It is the country’s largest maximum-security prison housing some 6,300 incarcerated individuals.
Within Angola, there is a rich musical history and a vibrant present, complete with bands that perform at events within the prison and, occasionally, outside its walls. The legendary blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, is perhaps the most notable performer from Angola.
In Instrument of the State, Harbert dives deep into the history and ever-fluid present of Angola, tracing the external forces and internal cultures that have shaped the prion’s music.
“Policy changes, legal decisions, demographic shifts, reform and economic realities all change the sound of music,” Harbert writes. “I am interested in that change.”
Harbert’s Audio Odyssey
For the incarcerated musicians whose story the book tells, it is a breath of fresh air.
“Instrument of the State is like no other book I’ve read about Angola because it doesn’t stereotype its subjects,” writes Myron Hodges, a guitarist for the Angola Big River Band, in one of the book’s forewords. “Instead, it focuses on the musical history and the endeavors of men serving time, those of us who seek to achieve a sense of purpose, meaning, peace and normalcy in our lives, using our musical abilities to captivate the hearts and minds of our audiences and our keepers.”
Harbert first began exploring music within Louisiana’s penitentiary system while working on his Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles under documentarian Marina Goldovskaya. In 2013, three years after finishing his dissertation, Harbert released a documentary, Follow Me Down, that traced musical traditions in three Louisiana prisons, including Angola.
In the ensuing decade, Harbert has maintained contact with incarcerated musicians at Angola, studying their artwork and their material reality. That commitment is part and parcel of his mission in Instrument of the State, to the story of Angola’s musicians as part of a larger narrative.
“In contrast with folklorists who preceded me, I am not collecting two-and-a-half-minute-long songs,” explains Harbert. “I am trying to listen longer. What if we think of Angola’s music as a song cycle, a musical sound that has continued for over a hundred years?”
The effect of his work is larger than the pages it’s contained on – he deftly weaves historical narrative, first-person accounts, interviews and the musicality of the place into one cohesive story.
Within Georgetown’s College of Arts & Sciences, Harbert serves as a professor in and chair of the Department of Performing Arts. He is also the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Music. Harbert, a guitarist himself, teaches courses on guitar theory, rock history and music in American prisons.
Published by Oxford University Press, Instrument of the State, is now available wherever books are sold.
-by Hayden Frye (C’17)