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.

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:
The late Mimi Fariña started her own foundation to bring music to people in various institutions: prisons, hospitals, nursing homes….


Underwhelming Valentine’s day folk songs

Folk and roots music hasn’t never been the happiest, especially when love is concerned. I won’t even get into the murder ballads… but I couldn’t resist compiling a little playlist of songs of longing, lost love and absence. Enjoy (or not.)

The complaint of the forlorn lover

Once I had a sweetheart, and now I have none
He’s gone he’s left me me, to weep and to mourn.

This classic British folk song has been covered by Joan Baez, Pentangle, or Marianne Faithful, but my favorite version is by newcomer Pippa Day in the finals of Bath Folk Festival New Shoots competition.

My heart is sad I am lonely
For the only one I love
When shall I see him oh no never
‘Til we meet in heaven above

Crossing over the ocean, a classic among classics of American folk, Bury Me Beneath the Willow has been a favorite lament to sing during old-time jams. Simple an evocative, the narrator is penning his/her final words to a spouse-to-be who eloped with another. I may be partial to Rosanne Cash’s version as it was my first introduction to the song, but I find her velvet voice to carry just the right hue of resignation and acceptance, with a tinge of desperation.


Are you lonesome tonight, do you miss me, I say
Are you sorry we drifted apart

From the Carter Family to Elvis, everyone and their broken-hearted dog seems to have covered this song, so I just randomly picked Kacey Musgrave’s version.

Country heartbreak

Love is like a dyin’ ember
Only memories remain
Through the ages I’ll remember
Blue eyes cryin’ in the rain

Country music coming from a rural place, the niceties of love often had to face the hardships of life. Needless to say, happy endings rarely prevail.


“Go”, she said, “And work with haste
And bring the bales into the barn
Else the crop will go to waste
And the babe will wait till the work is done”

Although not country in its style, Anaïs Mitchell’s song Shepherd (adapted from a short story by her father) is definitely about love in rural America. A tragic tale of labor and loss, sung in the ever-delicate voice of Mitchell…

Lover’s blues

The only thing different
The only thing new
I’ve got these little things
She’s got you

So this is cheating as it was first a country song by Patsy Cline, but Giddens’ bluesy version really adds to the feeling of regret and lament of an abandoned woman looking back at her former relationship.

She said I don’t know if I’ll be back
Or if you’ll want me if I come
But if and when that happens, dear
You better let my sweet dream run
Oh, let my sweet dream run

Made famous by Emmylou Harris,  Broken Man’s Lament in its original version by Marc Germino is far bluesier. The lyrics tell of a man whose accepting wife can only be pushed so far before she leaves.

When I was a young girl
Well I had me a cowboy
It weren’t much to look at
Just a free ramblin’ man
But that was a long time
And no matter how I tried
Those years just flow by
Like a broken down dam

Perhaps even better know than the original by John Prine, Angel From Montgomery by Bonnie Raitt is one of the most heartbreaking songs that illustrates how in love and life, things sometimes don’t go according to plan.

Fantastic Beasts and In Which Songs To Find Them – Part I

Folk music, coming from (you guessed it) folk-lore, is replete with magical creatures. One just has to know where to look for them.

Nicholas Berchem (1620 - 1683) - A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum
Nicholas Berchem (1620 – 1683) – A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum

And it is perhaps easier to start looking for them in European folklore. Local legends and old mythology have peopled  European folk with a wide variety of creatures the tales of which made it into folk songs. Sometimes, these animals are not particularly fantastic, at least not in appearance…

The Darby (Derby) Ram is a fine example of this category. Collected in Roud’s Folk index, it dates back to at least 1867, as it appeared in Llewellynn Jewitt‘s Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire on this year. It tells of a ram so huge that his horns reach up to the moon, and the wool on his back reached so high that eagle made their nest there. Needless to say, the butcher and the tanning boy who tried to slaughter this wonder of nature were punished: one was drowned in blood, and the other one was carried by the flood. The Kossoy Sister (one hit album wonder in 1956) worked their twin-sister harmony magic on this tune while keeping it close to the text reported by Jewitt, with a banjo accompaniment from Erik Darling who would then go on to replace Pete Seeger in the Weavers (yes, I enjoy English tune sung by Americans.) A statue of the ram has actually graced the town of Derby since 1995.

Not all extraordinary animals are as benevolent as the placid ram. We have for instance known since the days of Calydon that having a bloodthirsty boar in the neighborhood isn’t usually a good omen. A similar image is to be found in the opening sequence of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, but that’s not our topic here. The quintessential folk singer Jean Ritchie had a song called Old Bangum about such a wild boar and how it was chased by Bangum (available on streaming services apparently, but I don’t have access to those myself.) The song is based off Sir Lionel, another of the Child Ballads in which the wild boar is a pet either to a not-so-jolly giant or to a hysterical old woman who attacks the knight for killing her “pretty spotted pig.” It has been adapted by several other folk artists, but the most original (meaning “less traditional”) is perhaps Breton harpist Cecil Corbel’s version, in which the boar “will eat you meat and suck your blood.” Charming little critter. (Notice that in both Ritchie’s and Corbel’s version, the boar has no owner.)

One doesn’t have to go too far back in time to hear of such legendary beasts. Cryptozoology (the search for fantastic animals) keeps many of those tales alive, from the Loch Ness Monster to El Chupacabra. The one that interests us here is the beast of Bodmin Moor, a large cat which is say to hunt on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. The region is keen on keeping the legend alive, for obvious touristic reasons. It inspired British folk trio Kadia to write a song about this “demon cat of monstrous scale” and the sad tale of a young couple who were only hoping  for a romantic night on the moor.

For a myriad of wondrous creatures, one has to leave the folk cannon and turn to newer compositions, such as Peter, Paul and Mary’s Autumn to May. Apparently written by the men of the trio, this gentle song takes the listener onto a magical journey to meet a dancing dog with legs fourteen yards long or a swan living on an oyster and hatching snails (not to mention the vest-wearing traveling frog and a flock of flying sheep kept in the music box.) The men’s guitars duet in the background as they take lead, with harmonies from the honey voice that is Mary Travers’ (R.I.P 😥  )

Now, a very similar song, Little Brown Dog, appeared on Judy Collins’ Golden Apples of the Sun, in which she mention is was compiled in Ruth Crawford’s Seeger Animal Folksongs for Children… which was released in 1950, thus 12 years before PPM. The version sung by Collins had already been released in 1957 by Peggy Seeger, Ruth’s daughter. Both PPM and Collins’ tracks were released in 1962. Collins sings what is to me one of the most oddly poetic lines of the folk revival…

I buyed me a little bull he was four inches high
Everybody feared him who ever heard him cry
When he began to bellow he made such melodious sound
That all the walls in London came tumblin’ to the ground

Well, I’m sure these critters have barely whetted you appetite… Perhaps you’d like to hear about shape-shifting animals? Very well then, but in a next article.