Songbirds/jailbirds: the “tradition” of prison performance

A few days ago, all-around Goddess Rhiannon Giddens performed and gave a workshop in Sing Sing penitentiary, a maximum-security prison. A surprising and yet logical choice for the artiste whose sophomore solo-album was just released on Feb. 24th under the title of Freedom Highway. As explained in a New York Times article, Giddens had previously attended a concert at the facility, which inspired her to write a track that would be feature on her album: Better Get it Right The First Time, which has been presented in most reviews as a “Black Lives Matter Anthem.” The song, about police brutality, is replete with reference to “standing [one’s] ground” the infamous law used as a defense by George Zimmerman after he shot Trayvon Martin in 2012, being “shot anyway”, etc… What drove her to write the piece after this initial visit to Sing Sing is the realization of how skewed the penal system was in the US.  “I was struck by how black the population is. I knew that in my head, but seeing it just kind of hurt.” A perception that is confirmed by most statistics, as those of the NAACP. This disproportionate incarceration rate has far-reaching effects on African-Americans convicts during and after their incarceration, and on the families as well, as described in an analysis by the Washington Post. This issue could only affect Rhiannon Giddens, whose new album centers around self-penned songs based on slave narratives. Ironically, she couldn’t play Better Get it Right The First Time at Sing Sing due to its subject matter.

giddens-prison
Karsten Moran for the New York Times

Giddens is not the first roots artist to go down this road. Part of Johnny Cash’s legend is probably due to his 1968 Live At Folsom Prison and 1969 Live At Saint Quentin.

Cash had received letters from inmates after performing Folsom Prison Blues for the first time and decided to stage a concert a prison, bringing along his second wife, June Carter.

A few years later, in 1972, BB King and Joan Baez, among other, would take the stage at Sing Sing, setting a precedent for Giddens’ performance. In the clip below, Baez and her sister Mimi Fariña sing and banter with the inmates, with an interesting choice of songs: Dylan’s I Shall be Released and Viva Mi Patria Bolivia. The Baez sisters being of Mexican heritage on their father’s side, the choice to sing a Latin American song in Spanish could be interpreted along the lines drawn by Rhiannon Giddens in her observation on the make up of the prison’s population.The cheers they draw from the crowd as they begin the song seems to indicate that the latino population is also over-represented at the penitentiary. A problem that still persists into the 21st century.

Prisons and convicts have also often been a source of inspiration for root artists. But that’s another story, and shall be covered in another blog post. Stay tuned!

Rhiannon Giddens performed at Sing Sing thorugh the Musical Connection program of Carnegie Hall: https://www.carnegiehall.org/musicalconnections/singsing/
The late Mimi Fariña started her own foundation to bring music to people in various institutions: prisons, hospitals, nursing homes…. http://www.breadandroses.org/

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