The United States makes up about five percent of the world population, but more than a quarter of the world’s prisoners. There is no precedent for the extraordinary increase in incarceration in our country, and its consequences could be catastrophic. An absolutely alarming article published by The Atlantic Monthly last year detailed the devastation our mass incarceration has brought on African American families, where prison life is increasingly becoming ubiquitous. One in four black men born after 1970 will, by his thirties, have been imprisoned in this country.
The prison industrial complex is essentially hidden, as far as affluent Americans are concerned. You might be surprised to learn that last year President Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison. Clearly we don’t want to see what’s going on, or even hear about it. In spite of the success of prison-set television programs like Orange is the New Black, the omnipresence of bars in the lives of America’s disenfranchised hardly appears in our pop music these days. This wasn’t always the case.
It seems likely that when we suggest the subject of prison records, you’ll expect us to post a song from Johnny Cash’s two live albums, At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. They’re classic country albums and all, but we could never take Johnny’s prison persona as seriously as he seemed to himself — the closest Cash came to doing time in the sixties was waiting for his meth dealer.
After Merle Haggard passed away earlier this year, each obituary (including ours) mentioned that he was inspired to join a prison band after seeing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin on January 1st, 1958. Haggard was no stranger to prison, having done a couple stretches before he was arrested in Bakersfield after attempting to rob a roadhouse. An escape attempt at the Bakersfield jail earned him a trip to San Quentin, but it wasn’t Cash’s performances which really set him on the path to redemption. It was an encounter with Caryl Chessman, known for his 1954 memoir Cell 2455, Death Row.
Chessman’s case captivated the push to abolish capital punishment in the United States, at a time when most other western nations were moving towards abandoning it. Ronnie Hawkins even recorded a song about Chessman in 1960, just a few months before he was executed at San Quentin.
Merle Haggard wrote a number of songs about his experiences, and was rightly remembered for how honestly he captured the trials and troubles of the disenfranchised. His story is inspiring, as are many stories which come from prisons. It’s no accident that two of the most significant works of American literature — Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail — were both written behind bars. Our interest today, then, isn’t songs like Merle’s “Mama Tried,” which are about prison, but rather records which were actually recorded by prisoners.
The first of these is Any Woman’s Blues, which was recorded on New Years Eve 1975 at the Women’s Jail in San Bruno, California. It’s a pretty remarkable record, although not a perfect fit for our purpose today because in addition to former prisoners, the performances on Any Woman’s Blues include professional musicians as well. Several of the women who founded and recorded for Olivia Records appear, notably Cris Williamson, Linda Tui Tillery and Holly Near. The lesbian-oriented label was on of the most successful independents of the seventies.
The album was released by the Women’s Prison Concert Collective, which was supported by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Their commitment to improving the lives of incarcerated women is evident in the album’s insert, which includes a list of things one can do to help and where you can find more information.
Incidentally, here in Minnesota one thing you can do is support the Women’s Prison Book Project. It may not seem like much to provide reading material, but it often provides an important resource for an even more marginalized population. There are more than 150,000 owmen in prison and jail in the United Sates, and eighty percent of them are serving time for non-violent crimes. Of the remaining, most were convicted for defending themselves or their children from abuse. More than half of the women in prison are women of color, and two thirds of them have one or more children under the age of eighteen. According to their website, “the WPBP works to support prisoners; and through that solidarity works to empower prisoners themselves and build connections through prison walls.”
We remember accepting donations to their program when we volunteered at the now-closed Arise Bookstore. Today you can contact them through Boneshaker Books, a really great place just up in Seward not far from our shop.
That first song from Any Woman’s Blues is written and sung by Gwen Avery. Her signature song, “Sugar Mama,” appeared on Olivia Records’ Lesbian Concentrate compilation and she toured with Tillery and Mary Watkins, but she did not make an album of her own until almost twenty-five years later.
This second selection from Any Woman’s Blues is poetry read by Pat Parker. One of the poems is particularly moving, as it is written about her older sister, who died at the hands of an abusive husband. “Womanslaughter” protests the one-year sentence her sister’s killer received, remarking with scorn that “men cannot kill their wives / they passion them to death.”
This next record is by Glen Shirley, who had no idea he was to become a famous country songwriter as he sat in the front row of Johnny Cash’s famous performance at Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. Cash explained what happened without Shirley’s knowledge in a 1994 Life magazine interview:
The night before I was going to record at Folsom prison, I got to the motel and a preacher friend of mine brought me a tape of a song called ‘Greystone Chapel.’ He said a convict had written it about the chapel at Folsom. I listened to it one time and I said, ‘I’ve got to do this in the show tomorrow.’ So I stayed up and learned it, and the next day the preacher had him in the front row. I announced, ‘This song was written by Glen Sherley.’ It was a terrible, terrible thing to point him out among all those cons, but I didn’t think about that then. Everybody just had a fit, screaming and carrying on.
The memorable closing track on Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison put Shirley on the country music map, and later a hit recording of his song “Portrait of my Woman” by Eddy Arnold helped propel his career further, even though he was still incarcerated for a failed armed robbery. He recorded an album at Folsom Prison for Mega Records in 1971, and was released later that year.
Cash met him at the gate, and invited him to join his House of Cash organization as an opening performer and songwriter. Shirley hosted the performances in the documentary Flowers Out of Place, which featured Cash, Roy Clark and Linda Ronstadt. His behavior, which included violent threats, concerned Cash’s crew, and he was eventually fired.
Shirley was working for a cattle company in May 1978 when he shot a man in a drug-fueled rage. Two days later he took his own life in his brother’s house in Gonzalez, California. Cash paid for the funeral expenses, but effectively ended his involvement in prison reform after Shirley’s death, and never performed for prisoners again.
Perhaps the most popular prison recording of all time was made by John Lomax and his son Alan on a portable aluminum disc machine on loan from the Library of Congress. At Angola State Prison the folklorists found Huddie Ledbetter, later known nationwide as Lead Belly, who made a number of recordings for them during his time for an attempted murder.
It is believed by some that a recording Lead Belly made in prison, delivered to the Governor by the Lomaxes, hastened his early release, but records show he was already eligible because of good behavior. The most famous of the songs he recorded for the Library of Congress was one he’d been singing for more than twenty years, “Goodnight Irene.” This song is, of course, where the record shop’s li’l Boston Terrier Irene gets her name.
This last record, Ain’t Got Time to Lose, features blues, folk and country songs written and performed by inmates and former inmates of the Oklahoma Correctional System in 1980. Leo Chandler, who served as production director as well as performing one of the songs on the album, describes the project in its liner notes:
For years Institution Programs Incorporated has developed and conducted arts based programs within the framework of the Oklahoma Prison System. Because of financial limitations, these programs have not reached all eligible inmates. The idea of a convict album was conceived to share the talent that has existed inside the prison.
It was not an easy task to arrange for security to transport men and women from different institutions across the state to a recording studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to finalize the project. Yet, with the extra effort and cooperation of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, it happened!
All income generated by this album, except for production costs, will go to the expansion of the prison arts programs. These programs offer projects in visual art, literature, drama, music, design and continuing humanities dialogues.
Creativity can be developed through discipline, and I feel that discovering one’s own potential brings self-esteem. This album is an entertainment package and consists of more than one style of music. It is comprised of the stories, joys, the sadness and frustration, triumph and humor of people in prison. It is a sincere attempt for these people to financially support their own redirective programs.
Several songs express the successes of such a program, such as Chandler’s “Looking for a Better Way to Live” and Harvey Smith’s “Oh Lord Help Me.” Others, like “Crow in a Hickory Tree” by Bill Baker, are just fun songs which otherwise might never have been heard outside of Oklahoma. There are several gospel songs on the album as well, notably the beautiful song at the beginning of this post which was written and performed by Kim Holloway.