Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Pretenders – "Back on the Chain Gang" (1982)

I found a picture of you
Those were the happiest days of my life

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

That quoted language provided the legal justification for convict leasing by state governments.

After the Civil War, the governments of the Southern states desperately needed revenue, so they began to lease their prison inmates to plantation owners, railroads, coal mines, and others who needed cheap labor.  

Many convict laborers worked on railroads
The practice was very lucrative for the states.  In 1898, 73% of Alabama’s revenues came from convict leasing.  And because the businesses who leased convict labor were responsible for the cost of feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners who worked for them, the states saved a great deal of money.

Reformers exposed the abuses of the convict labor system, and the practice was eventually outlawed.  Instead of working for private companies, prisoners were put to work on public works projects – like building roads.  

Chain gangs were once a common sight, especially in the South, but most states abolished them many decades ago.  Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona – which includes Phoenix – still sends out chain gangs to pick up trash and do other menial work.  

Female convicts being chained together
Arpaio, who calls himself “an equal opportunity incarcerator,” has both male and female chain gangs.

“It’s the only female chain gang in the world,” he told one interviewer.  “Started it with men and thought, ‘Why discriminate against women?’ . . . The pilot who flew my plane in today was a woman. We have them in the army fighting.  And in the police. Why should women be treated different in prison?”

Why indeed?

After the female Maricopa County chain gang members are chained together, the chant in unison as they march to the bus that will transport them to their worksite:

5 a.m. is when we rise
Where we’ll go is a surprise
No more drink and no more drugs
No more boyfriends who are thugs

Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders wrote “Back on the Chain Gang” to pay tribute to the group’s lead guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott, who died from heart failure caused by cocaine abuse in 1982.  He was only 25 years old.  

James Honeyman-Scott
Honeyman-Scott died only two days after bass guitarist Pete Farndon was kicked out of the Pretenders because his drug use was out of control.  

Less than a year after Honeyman-Scott’s death, Farndon overdosed on heroin and drowned in his bathtub.  He was only 30.

Here’s “Back on the Chain Gang”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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