A Screenplay by
Tim Ryerse and Scott Forslund
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to the screenplay
“There’s something unnatural about that boy,” declares Burl Hicks, a "trusty" guard describing blond, 21-year-old Luke Ferryman, who was raised in a brothel and railroaded by a court in 1957 for a murder he didn’t commit. Given the tag “baby killer,” he’s nearly beaten to death by other prisoners on his way to the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana. While recovering, Luke finds comfort in the care of Mahalia, a candy-striper who believes in his innocence. In time, she becomes both his ally and lover as he descends into the bowels of incarceration where he’s guided by Victor the pious “preacher man,” and Titus, an unknown guitar prodigy. “There are hundreds of unmarked graves here,” he’s told. “Even the dead don't get out of Angola.” Committed to orchestrating the baby killer’s death, Lt. Ellis, a guard in charge of the trusties, transfers a mass murderer into Luke’s cell. Out of desperation, Luke resorts to the occult to fend off the homicidal butcher. And when he learns the governor will visit for a Fourth of July celebration, and prisoner rodeo; a gut-wrenching event where killers become gladiators, Luke sees a chance to be pardoned. Haunted by his abusive alcoholic father, yet consumed by the musical passion that drives him, Luke devises a crazy plan to gain his freedom by writing a song so moving he believes it will convince the governor to pardon him, just like the governor of Texas did for the legendary Lead Belly. But the odds are stacked against Luke. It will take strong faith, a touch of luck, and intense willpower to pull off his plan and make himself a free man again.
"House of the Rising Sun" has a complex history. It’s been said that miners were familiar with it as early as 1905. The oldest published version of the lyrics was printed in Adventure magazine in 1925 by Robert Winslow Gordon in a column titled "Old Songs that Men Have Sung.” The oldest known recording of the song under the title "Rising Sun Blues" is by Appalachian artists Clarence "Tom" Ashley and Gwen Foster who recorded it for Vocalion Records in 1933. Ashley said he had learned it from his grandfather. In 1937 folklorist Alan Lomax, a curator of the American Folk Song Archive at the Library of Congress, recorded a performance of the song by Georgia Turner, the 16-year-old daughter of a local miner. It was also titled “Rising Sun Blues” and Lomax credited the lyrics of that recording to Turner. Her adaptation of the American folk classic, better known as "House of the Rising Sun," has become the cover for hundreds of performers since, including Roy Acuff, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, The Animals, Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman, Muse, and even Andy Griffith.
Georgia Turner's 1937 recording
of "Rising Sun Blues"
Like many classic folk ballads, "House of the Rising Sun" is of uncertain authorship. Musicologists say that it is based on the tradition of broadside ballads and thematically it has some resemblance to the 16th century ballad "The Unfortunate Rake." The "Rising Sun" in the title has been purported to be, among other things, a bawdy house in England, an English pub, and a house of ill repute in New Orleans.
"House of the Rising Sun"
by The Animals, 1964.
By Tim Ryerse
The largest prison in the United States houses the worst of the worst. The average sentence for its inmates is 91 years. There are 85 convicts on death row. One man convicted of raping 120 women is serving 2,574 years with 19 life sentences on top of that.
"There has been more human suffering on this piece of land than anywhere else in America.”
- Burl Cain, Angola Warden
Angola has been a violent place. For more than 100 years it was the most dangerous prison in America. Before the Civil War it was a slave-breeding plantation named after the African state where the slaves were probably captured. When the Civil War ended and the slaves were freed, Angola became a prison farm. For inmates who face life behind bars today, the Angola Prison Rodeo offers diversion, but also a way to vent frustration and anger. The rodeo evolved in the 1950s and was opened to the public in 1967 using bulls from the prison's cattle ranch. Its popularity has grown over the years and today the rodeo is big business for the prison, bringing in tourists and inmates' families and friends who fill its 7,500-seat arena. For other inmates, Angola Radio is "The number one incarceration station that kicks behind the bricks." That's the motto of KLSP FM, the low-powered radio station officially licensed to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola. It's just like every other radio station with one major exception: the DJs are tuned in for life.