Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., known in the world of music as Dr. John, died on June 6. His hometown of New Orleans bid farewell to the musician last Saturday and paraded through the streets with brass bands playing in his honor as his casket was taken by a horse carriage to a cemetery.
Dr. John launched his career in the late 1960s with the moniker of “The Night Tripper.” His personality fused blues, psychedelia, rock and roll, funk, jazz, and the sounds of Mardi Gras. He brought a mystique to the stage that was defined by New Orleans.
He did not produce a lot of protest music, however, in the 2000s, when President George W. Bush was in office, he recorded the Grammy Award-winning album “City That Care Forgot” with the band, the Lower 911. It was in response to the government’s total neglect of people impacted by Hurricane Katrina.
When the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, he spoke out along with residents against BP and demanded accountability.
Dr. John went on to find an audience with a new generation of music fans when he recorded the acclaimed album “Locked Down” with the help of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in 2012.
Various songs dealt with his outrage over the impacts of the hurricane and BP oil disaster still being felt throughout local communities. He also spoke in general against war and poverty, as well as the propaganda leading folks into confusion and delusion. “KKK, CIA, all playing in the same cage,” he mused.
The title track, “Locked Down,” was inspired by his time in federal prison at Fort Worth, where he was incarcerated for drug possession.
In 1970, Dr. John recorded his third album, “Remedies,” which was not well-received. But the final track was a 17-minute song called “Angola Anthem.” It came from a friend named Tangleye, who had served more than 40 years at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola.
Tangleye told him, “I’m gonna sell you this song. Got it in Angola, but ain’t nobody ever cut this song…Even now guys I know getting out of Angola know this song. It’s a horrible place to be.”
Dr. John wails, “Life is cheap in Angola. They give a convict a gun to shoot another one if he run. They don’t give a damn if you’re old or young. In the ponderosa, they’ll shoot you just for fun.”
“The cane grows far as the eye can see.” He adds, “When your back is aching and your hands are bleeding, a free man hollers, ‘Cut that cane, you sorry thing! Or I’ll put you in the hole until next spring.'”
Later in the song, Dr. John recalls, “You know I was bum rap-d just t-other day. You know this is how Angola’ll make you pay. The kangaroo court—hah!—the kangaroo court. That’s where the free man send you to. That’s no kind of justice. For what you ever do, you get sentenced there.”
“You just don’t know how it feels to miss a many a meal in Angola,” he moans.
Mixed in with the frenetic rhythm that represents the mad injustice of incarceration, the clanking of chains from men forced into slave labor are heard. The faint sound of the “free men” shouting at prisoners as they work can be heard too.
The anthem stretches on for around ten minutes after the main verses. Dr. John improvises over percussion, revisiting the many images of cruelty which the lyrics are intended to conjure.
“One of the many reasons for making this album was to get the word out about the horrible conditions in Angola Penitentiary, the state prison from in Louisiana,” Dr. John wrote in his memoir, “Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper.”
He added, “A few weeks after the album was released, while I was cooling out down in Miami, I read a review in Rolling Stone and discovered that the reviewer thought I was talking about Angola the country—that’s how far they missed the issue.”
From his time at Fort Worth, Dr. John recalled working his way up from garbage duty to a band room, where he had the opportunity to gig with “some of the other cats.”
“A lot of them were doing time on violation of the Boggs Act and the Harrison Act (interstate and international transportation of narcotics, respectively).”
“My sheet had me on some smoking charges—namely, I was psychotic, had delusions of grandeur, was a borderline dipsomaniac (I didn’t even drink), and who knows what else,” Dr. John shared. “The kick to me was that the shrink was a young punk navy doctor, who was scared to get shipped to Korea, even though the war there had been over for years.”
“The therapists in the pen had this claim that they’d cured Bela Lugosi, even though it was a certifiable fact that Bela died a dope fiend. No matter, the man had pictures of Bela on the wall, along with a Hall of Fame of narcotics abusers.”
A half century later, the prison administrators in Angola (and other facilities in Louisiana) still use solitary confinement as a “weapon for staff and they use it mightily,” according to prisoners. The ACLU of Louisiana and Solitary Watch documented the mental deterioration it causes in a recently published report.
Symptoms of “anxiety, depression, paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and difficulty interacting with others” occurs. Prisoners feel like they will never be themselves again.
The chaos of “Angola Anthem” captures this dread. Its percussion coupled with Dr. John’s wailing represents the paranoia and hallucinatory vibe of incarceration and isolation in the hole.
It may seem like the song goes on forever and ever, but artistically, it works because that’s how it feels for many subject to solitary in Angola and anywhere else where such inhuman treatment remains acceptable.
Listen to “Angola Anthem” by clicking the above player or go here.