Forty-five years ago, on September 13, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller deployed the National Guard, police, and guards to crush the prisoner rebellion at the Attica state prison. Tear gas was launched. Prisoners who were not resisting were shot and killed. Torture and abuse of prisoners was employed to restore order.
Jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp recorded an entire album of music called “Attica Blues” in response to the Attica rebellion and the manner in which black prisoners, who stood up for their rights were crushed. It was released in 1972.
The album blends styles of free jazz, rhythm and blues, and big band music. But the opening track, “Attica Blues,” stands out. It is much more like the psychedelic funk The Temptations or Sly and the Family Stone would have recorded than the jazz or post-bebop that defines the rest of the album.
William Godvin “Beaver” Harris, a jazz drummer who frequently worked with Shepp, wrote the song’s lyrics. Jo Armstead, who was once part of The Ikettes and co-wrote “Let’s Go Get Stoned ” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” with Ray Charles, absolutely belts out every lyric and infuses the song with incredible power.
The song represents the desire for black liberation, but it is also a warning against what may come if injustice persists. As Armstead sings, if she would have had the chance to make the decision, every man could walk this Earth on equal condition. Every child could do more than dream on a star. Armstead also would put an end to war.
Backup singers build up the intensity, as Armstead repeats the cry for dignity, equality, and justice amidst a psychedelic funk rhythm and then repeats it again and again.
On the album, civil rights attorney William Kunstler, who was part of the negotiating committee which represented Attica prisoners, reads poetry. Tribute is paid to George Jackson, a Black Panther who was slain at San Quentin weeks before the Attica rebellion. The spirituality of struggle and freedom runs through each composition.
Shepp told the BBC his drummer, Harris, came up with the idea for music that addressed the Attica rebellion. Harris believed tribute needed to be paid to those who died.
“It was a time when people were standing up for their rights, as Bob Marley might have put it. Prisoners had tried to negotiate some kind of compromise,” Shepp said. “At the time, Nelson Rockefeller was the governor of New York. Apparently, Rockefeller did not want to reach a compromise.”
“I’ve been conscious of injustices that have been meted out to blacks. Prisons are an indication of just how slow we have been to change just some very fundamental things in this society. We would have fewer prisons, I think, if we had a better educated population, if we had less poverty,” Shepp said, when talking about his album in 2013 after he re-recorded the music with the Attica Blues Orchestra.
The same set of demands Attica prisoners put forward when they rebelled and called for dignity, respect, and an end to slavery conditions within the facility are still the demands of prisoners today. In fact, a prison labor strike is ongoing in at least twelve facilities in the United States.
One may also notice the album cover has the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics raising their fists in a black power salute during the national anthem. NFL players are currently engaging in similar protest during the anthem, choosing to defy the nationalistic culture of football and stand against violence by police against black Americans. So, Shepp’s music for liberation remains exceptionally relevant.
Listen to Archie Shepp’s “Attica Blues”:
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