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/

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.