Roger Street Friedman interview
Roget Street Friedman, like most of us, dabbles in social media from time to time sharing his music and videos, seeking connections in today’s age. This is how it’s done over the past 15 years, right? And like most of us, he considered the medium to be a gamble, and fairly focused on lighthearted entertainment. So when he shared his serious video about the continued practice of slavery for his song “The Ghosts of Sugar Land” it wasn’t top of mind that the video would reach half a million people. But that’s just what it do, challenging our assumption that social media fans are focused only on the most silly and trite of fodder. We had a chance to chat with Roger about the video and this phenomenon. Enjoy.
Americana Highways: You have a new video for your song, “The Ghosts of Sugar Land,” that discusses the practice of convict leasing in Texas after the Civil War with this line: “the slaves were freed in ‘63 while the Civil War raged, in ’65 the confederates lost the war, and the wealth that slavery made/abolition was signed and sealed but held one fateful flaw: no man shall be a slave it said unless he broke the law.” Can you give more details on the history of this law and the inspiration behind the song?
Roger Street Friedman: Sure – the 13th Amendment to the constitution abolished slavery but it contains the line:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime…”
That meant that slave labor was legal if the person doing the labor had been convicted of a crime. After the Civil War white southerners still controlled the state legislatures, and they wrote laws, collectively known as the “Black Codes” or “The Pig Laws,” that made it easier to convict (mostly) black men of crimes and made the sentences very harsh even for petty crimes.
Rather than housing these prisoners in prisons, which was very costly, they “leased” the prisoners very inexpensively to private enterprises like plantations and coal mines for example. The conditions were incredibly harsh. Unlike a slave owner before the war who viewed their slaves as a valuable asset and at least needed to provide a minimum of care, these private enterprises did not have any concern for the well-being of these prisoners. They knew if one died they could get another from the state. It was an incredibly brutal system where the leased convicts were worked from “can ‘til can’t.” In many cases, especially in Sugar Land where sugar cane harvesting and milling was incredibly hard, HOT and dangerous, many of these prisoners only lasted days or weeks. Many died.
We did not learn about this in school and once I learned about it I had to write about it. “The Ghosts of Sugar Land” was inspired by a story I read in a Texas newspaper. While breaking ground for a new technical education center, human remains were discovered. They turned out to be the remains of 95 convict laborers, in unmarked graves, that were at the Imperial Prison Farm in Sugar Land somewhere between the 1880’s and 1912 when convict leasing was outlawed in Texas.
AH: Can you share some details on how you and Larry Campbell worked on this particular song for your recently released album?
RSF: Larry was really struck by this song. He thought it was an incredibly important story to tell and had to have just the right treatment in terms of the production. We recorded the basic tracks during the Love Hope Trust sessions with my rhythm section of Jim Toscano (drums) and Matt Schneider (bass). While many of the tunes came together relatively quickly, getting the feel and groove of Sugar Land took a number of attempts. I remember that after we’d gotten the take that felt really good Larry said something to the effect of “…this one almost beat us, but we got it in the end.” I recorded the vocal on my own and then went up to Justin Guip’s (Grammy winning engineer and Hot Tuna drummer) studio in Milan, NY, where Larry put down his overdubs. He added fiddle, mandolin and banjo, which all just turned out great. He really is one of the best and just has an incredible sensibility for giving each track exactly what it needs… no more and no less!
AH: How long have you been using social media to get your music out there?
RSF: I’ve been using social media since the beginning of my career… with mixed results. It’s a good way to keep fans informed of what’s happening and it can help new fans to discover the music, but it’s a long slow process. This viral video on TikTok got my name in front of a lot of people who never would have known about me in just a few days. So that algorithm is pretty amazing.
AH: What was your background with TikTok before this video?
I had posted 3 other videos prior to this one. I have a social media person who suggested we give TikTok a try just for the heck of it!
AH: What happened when you put this video out on Tik Tok?
RSF: I got a text from Chassidy Alainu-Adaide who is the Social Studies Coordinator at the Ft. Bend Independent School District down in Sugar Land telling me that I was “blowing up on TikTok”! I was like “huh?” but when I looked we had had 250,000 hits in the first 12 hours!
The story behind my song The Ghosts of Sugarland is another example of the long battle for equality. I hope that highlighting these stories can help lead us toward more lead us toward a more equal and just future, and correct our history books that slavery didn’t simply end in 1865. #slavery #1865 #sugarland #sugarlandtx #imperialsugar #imperialsugarfactory #fyp #education #equality #music #americana
AH: Did it keep going?
RSF: Within 48 hours it had had over 500k hits, a ton of likes and comments and within 4 days it was close to 700k. There are also great conversations starting in the comments and people thanking me for telling this story. Which is really gratifying! And important for the story to be told.
AH: Why do you think this video, more than others, got shared so widely?
RSF: I think it’s a very potent topic – especially now with the attacks on teaching black history. It’s so important to tell the unvarnished truth about our history. I think there’s a hunger for it and that the only way to reconcile our current racial inequalities is to truly understand our past. People are really drawn to this story in particular, the way these people were hidden away from society, just like the story of convict leasing in general. It’s a pretty potent metaphor.
AH: Did this restore your faith in TikTok or change your view of social media, or was it in alignment with your previous opinions?
RF: It’s funny, I had no experience with TikTok and just assumed it wasn’t the right demographic for Americana music in general and my music in particular… so this gives me a lot of faith that it’s a platform that should be explored further and that there is a lot of potential to spread a message out far and wide… if it’s the right message!
AH: Do you think you will duplicate this with other songs and videos?
RF: It’s hard to say but it will be interesting to see and we will certainly be putting out more content.
AH: What are you working on next?
RF: Currently I’m working on booking tours and writing new material. Although there are no concrete plans for the next record, it’s in the back of my mind at all times.
Thanks for chatting with us, Roger!
Find more about Roger Street Friedman and his project on his website here: https://www.rogerstreetfriedman.com
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Roger Street Friedman “Love Hope Trust”