Thursday, September 29, 2016

Prisons and Music


    Prisoners in the US are uniting in opposition to overcrowding, brutality, and forced labor for starvation wages. Prisoners traditionally protest by defiance and disorder, riots included. Today they are organizing a national prison labor strike. This strike was the subject of an hour-long program, on On Point (WBUR-FM, National Public Radio), Sept. 28. Prisoners spoke from behind bars to air their grievances and describe their actions. Authors and analysts provided other views, while the call-in audience expressed theirs. The prisoners want an end to the overcrowding, brutality, and forced labor—which in their view amounted to a kind of slavery, the overcrowding in prisons likened to the overcrowding on slave ships. They didn’t deny that they should “do the time if they did the crime.” But they proposed reform: rehabilitation, job training, and a fair wage in exchange for the manufacturing and construction jobs they were forced to do.       
Huddie and Martha Promise Ledbetter, 1935
Aside from the issue of justice (social, racial, economic) that the program raised and to which I responded, I was reminded of the long historical association of music with prisons. Work songs and blues and ballads were collected from prisoners by folklorists such as John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s and 1940s, by University of Iowa professor Harry Oster in the 1950s, and by Harvard Junior Fellow Bruce Jackson in the 1960s, among others. The location wasn’t chosen because the guards could order the prisoners to make music; the reason to collect from prisoners was that they, particularly those who had been in prison for decades, were more likely to know the older folk music and perform it without having been influenced so much by contemporary popular music. In 1933 the Lomaxes discovered Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), a singer and twelve-string guitar player with great musical skill and a broad folksong repertoire, in the Louisiana penitentiary. After his release in 1934, they took him on tours to perform for the music lovers who formed the beginnings of a folk music revival in the 1930s. Leadbelly had a powerful stage presence. When they took him to Harvard, where both John and Alan had studied, they made sure to seat the British ballad expert, George Lyman Kittredge, in the front row. Kittredge, or “Kitty” as he was called, had taught both Lomaxes, and had encouraged John to collect cowboy songs. Then an old man, retired, Kittredge found Leadbelly’s intensity too much to bear. “He is a demon, Lomax,” Kittredge was reported to have said, whereupon he left the concert. Demon or not, Leadbelly’s folksong legacy fills several boxes of records and tapes in the Library of Congress, and has been issued and re-issued on multi-volume LP and CD sets over the years.
Lazy Bill Lucas, 1969. Photo by J. T. Titon
    Not only did prisoners sing for collectors, but musicians sang for prisoners. Musicians performed for prisoners’ entertainment: Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955) may be his best known song, and his album, “Live at Folsom Prison” (1968) remains popular. Accompanying blues singer and pianist Lazy Bill Lucas in 1970, I played guitar in Minnesota’s Sandstone Prison, entertaining the inmates. It was an interesting trip north from the Twin Cities. I’d forgotten that I had a bottleneck slide in my guitar case. In those days we made them by breaking off the necks of red bordeaux type wine bottles, then smoothing out the glass's jagged edges. I guess my edges weren’t smooth enough for the guards, who confiscated the bottleneck when they inspected us on entering. For a moment I wondered if they’d arrest me for trying to smuggle a weapon in. They didn’t.
   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?