Pete Seeger and Toshi Seeger, their son Daniel, and folklorist Bruce Jackson visited a Texas prison in Huntsville in March of 1966 and produced this rare document of of work songs by inmates of the Ellis Unit.
Worksongs helped African American prisoners survive the grueling work demanded of them. With mechanization and integration, worksongs like these died out shortly after this film was made.
Bruce Jackson's book Wake Up Dead Man (University of Georgia Press) is a highly recommended study of work songs in Texas prisons.
The large plantations in the U.S. South were based on West African agricultural models and, with one major difference, the black slaves used worksongs 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.
-- From Bruce Jackson's background notes on making this film.