The most tragic histories can make the greatest songs. In the early 1970s, three black inmates of Angola prison – later known as the Angola 3 – tried to speak out against the terrible prison conditions in this former Louisiana plantation. Shortly after, they were framed for the murder of a black guard and, after receiving a mock trial, sentenced to life in solitary confinement.
That was in 1972. More than three decades later, one of the Angola 3 wrote Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Still in solitary confinement, Herman Wallace told her his story and asked her to spread the word. She finally did, in a song called “The Rise of the Black Messiah” on their 2015 album One Lost Day. Its title refers to an infamous FBI directive issued by J. Edgar Hoover that called for the prevention of “the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.”
In mood and message, the song harkens back to Neil Young’s classic “Southern Man” and even further back to Phil Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” The Indigo Girls start menacingly, with Ray singing in her lowest register accompanied only by simple mandolin strumming. But the track soon explodes into full outrage, while Amy Ray connects her own reality (“I’m sitting underneath that hanging tree”) to the horrors of a prison system that reflects plantation history.
In a final stroke of outraged genius, the Indigo Girls turn the FBI rhetoric on its head, using it against them. “He’s gonna rise,” Ray sings, “and all them lynchers are gonna be damned.” Where the FBI used the word “messiah” half-heartedly, with quotation marks, as a way to instill fear and emphasize the “danger” of the black movement, Amy Ray takes the image seriously, casting Herman Wallace as a messiah who will finally rise from the darkness he was unjustly confined to – “when outta that hole walks a brand new man.”
The word “hole” in the song’s final line is meaningful in many ways. It is the hole of Wallace’s solitary confinement, as well as, symbolically, the hole that Jesus rose from. It is also, in a much broader sense, the hole of an inhuman prison and former plantation and of a deeply flawed justice system (“have you heard of mass incarceration”) where a prisoner can be convicted without a proper trial and forced to live his life in a six by nine-foot cell.
Editor’s note: Herman Wallace received compassionate release in 2013, while suffering from cancer. He died three days later. The other two members of the Angola 3, Robert King and Albert Woodfox, were released respectively in 2001 and earlier this year.
Latest posts by Kasper Nijsen (see all)
- Indigo Girls, “The Rise of the Black Messiah” from One Lost Day (2015): One Track Mind - July 21, 2016
- Sixto Rodriguez, Jan. 22, 2016: Shows I’ll Never Forget - January 25, 2016
- David Wiffen – Coast to Coast Fever (1973): Forgotten Series - January 13, 2016