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'The B-Side' revives a vanished strain of American music

In 1964, Bruce Jackson took a tape recorder to Texas and rescued a dying piece of history.

The University at Buffalo professor's 1965 album, "Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons," features spirituals, work songs, poetry and scripture sung by inmates toiling in the state's agricultural prison farms.

Many of the songs and styles Jackson preserved, carried on slave ships from Africa and tinged with the pain and brutality of the antebellum South, would soon disappear from the culture when American prisons began to integrate in the next decade.

Almost 50 years later, New York City-based performer Eric Berryman came across a used copy of Jackson's record on vinyl. The music moved him so deeply that he approached a New York theater company with the idea of mounting a performance based entirely on the record.

And just like that, one of the most buzzworthy productions of the current New York theater season was born.

“The B-Side: ‘Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons’ A Record Album Interpretation," produced by the esteemed avant-garde theater company the Wooster Group and directed by Kate Valk, features Berryman, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore. It takes audiences on a guided tour through Jackson's record with Berryman serving as a hybrid between DJ and narrator.

It will play four sold-out performances Feb. 8 to 11 in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts Black Box Theatre on the invitation of UB's Creative Arts Initiative.

Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore appear in the Wooster Group's production of "The B-Side." (Photo by Bruce Jackson)

What attracted Berryman to the music, he said, was the innate enjoyment and enthusiasm performers seemed to embody while they were singing it -- despite their circumstances. And he was inspired by the Wooster Group's 2014 production of "Early Shaker Spirituals," which also was presented as a slightly theatricalized listening session.

"There was just such enjoyment with the heart and the soul of the music, and that's one of the reasons why you keep listening," he said in a phone interview from New York City. "It was created during a time of brutality, and people used it to try to survive... But if the music is good musically, you want to keep listening to it despite what was going on."

Variety also played into it. Instead of an album of work songs, which can tend to sound monotonous after a while, Jackson endeavored to include a variety of material.

"There are songs that are solo work songs, songs that might have been sung picking cotton or cutting sugarcane, where a consistent tempo for the group wasn't necessary, but that allowed you to pass the time," Berryman said. "Those kind of solo songs were very interesting to me, and very heartbreaking and wonderfully poignant. This album, I don't think there's anything like it, and hasn't been since."

Listen to "Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons" here:

For Jackson, who has photographed and written extensively on the prison system, it has been surprising and gratifying to see his work being carried into a new art form 50 years after he  recorded it.

"The first time I stood in a live oak grove on Ramsey Prison Farm surrounded by all these convicts cutting down trees with axes and singing, after that I never performed out again," Jackson said. "I decided it was absolutely absurd for me as a New York Jew to be singing black folk songs when these guys were there doing it for real. What I decided to do instead was devote it all to documenting their tradition."

This decision by a young Jackson deeply impressed Berryman, who said that "sometimes it doesn't matter who is doing it, it just matters that someone did it."

"I think it's an amazing thing and something that people now could think about," Berryman said. "Bruce got into the door, and then he said, 'Wait a minute, how can I use how I've gotten into the door to best serve this material?' "

Judging at least by the critical response, Jackson, Berryman and his collaborators at the Wooster Group have served it quite well.

A review of the show by New York Times Theater Critic Ben Brantley called it "an extraordinary masterclass in listening."

Philip Moore, Eric Berryman and Jasper McGruder appear in the Wooster Group's production of "The B-Side." (Photo by Bruce Jackson)

"The actors do not try to re-create the wood-hacking and hoeing that was the daily lot of the men they are channeling," Brantley wrote. "Mostly, they are uncommonly still, conflating the acts of singing and listening. Gestures and movements are severely rationed, so that each one reads incisively."

Berryman and Jackson were driven by the same impulse: to capture and propagate this music by finding new ways for audiences to connect to it. Their collective goal is to bring contemporary listeners as close as possible to the actual experience Jackson had, of seeing a living piece of culture with his own eyes and ears.

"I'm always striving to kind of welcome these guys into the room," Berryman said, adding he hopes to show audiences "that they are living on and they are not forgotten, that their struggles and their genius is not forgotten."

University at Buffalo professor and folklorist Bruce Jackson, left, poses with performers Jasper McGruder, Eric Berryman and Philip Moore in New York City on the opening night of "The B-Side."

When Jackson visited the agricultural prison farms of Texas, they were not very far removed -- physically, spiritually or morally -- from the plantations where slaves once toiled.

"They were a survival device in slavery times and they were a survival device in the penitentiary," Jackson said. "Some of those penitentiaries were built on the same grounds as the plantations. It was as if the songs never changed. It was just the people singing them who changed over time."

Jackson and Berryman's efforts mean that there are new people singing the same songs now, and in a new place. For a few more decades at least, their survival is ensured.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

Theater Preview

The B-Side: "Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons"

The production, which runs Feb. 8 to 11 in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts, is sold out, but you can sign up for the waitlist or show up in case of no-shows. Visit ubcfa.org.

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