|An album focusing on music of chain gangs, this record is
as explosive and powerful as any in Belafonte's catalog. Accompanied again
by the Belafonte Folk Singers and the occasional guitar and bass (with
conductor Bob Corman credited under his real name, Robert De Cormier),
Belafonte turns the hypnotic, rhythmic chants of Negro prisoners into
riveting, passionate songs of unrelenting loneliness and shame ("Swing Dat
Hammer"), torturous days laboring in the hot sun ("Go Down Old Hannah"),
hatred for their captors ("Grizzly Bear") and even their guard dogs ("Here
Rattler Here"). "Diamond Joe" features
Belafonte expressing the prisoner's anger and despair as he faces an
endless life on the rock pile. It is one of the most chilling performances
of his career.
The finale is an atomospheric piece called "Talkin' an' Signifyin'"
Belafonte telling stories and joking with other "prisoners" (members of
the Folk Singers) as they lie in their bunkhouse after dark, with rain
pelting down on the roof. The material was drawn from research of actual
recordings and written fragments from prison life. Folklorists and purists
who have decried
Belafonte for "commercializing" folk music need look no further than
this album to discover that Belafonte's translation of the traditional
material into more commercial terms only intensifies the impact of the
music. This is
Belafonte at his best.
~ Cary Ginell, All Music Guide