|Huddie and Martha Promise Ledbetter, 1935|
|Lazy Bill Lucas, 1969. Photo by J. T. Titon|
Another interesting part of that trip to Sandstone Prison was that the guitarist John Fahey went along, to be the opening act. I wondered how entertaining his guitar solos would be in prison. I never found out. John had flown in from California on a brief concert tour. But he'd been in a fight at his motel the night before, and was now in no condition to play music. How he got into that fight: he and his road manager didn’t know that the Minnesota state high school wrestling championships were being held at the University of Minnesota then, and that the wrestlers were staying at the same motel, the Gopher Campus Motor Lodge. The wrestlers partied all night and after John couldn’t stand the noise any more, he went into the hallway in his pajamas and told them to quiet down. Not a good idea. Even worse, he told them not to mess with him because he had a black belt in karate. Maybe he did, but he was no match for the group that pummeled him. So Bill and I and our drummer, John Schrag, did the concert by ourselves. It never occurred to me to try to collect any music from the inmates. They were appreciative, mostly of Bill, who rose to the occasion.
Some eight years later, when I was a professor at Tufts University, I worked briefly with a teacher at Framingham Women’s Prison. Framingham is one of the western suburbs of Boston. We were teaching writing. It represented a cultural shift: instead of collecting music from a captive audience, we ethnomusicologists and folklorists began working to help rehabilitate and empower prisoners, often through music. That work has continued. A recent example was presented at the conference in Limerick, Ireland, on ethnomusicology and activism, a little more than a year ago. Andrew McGraw, an ethnomusicologist teaching at the University of Richmond, in Virginia, discussed how he worked with prisoners to establish a recording studio in the Richmond City Jail so they could explore sound and record their hip-hop tracks. So, when I heard that radio program yesterday, I thought of how folklorists and ethnomusicologists had been involved over the years with music and prisons. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this involvement started well before the Lomaxes, possibly in Europe. Did it? And what might be the role of music in the national prison labor strike today?