They Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
In 1943, sixteen-year-old Johnny Bragg was given six consecutive life sentences to be served at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville. As an illiterate black teenager in a segregated prison in a segregated state, Bragg began his sentence with three strikes against him. But he had a talent for singing and he put together a vocal group, the Prisonaires. They began by performing at the prison and then went on to have a most unlikely career in music. Still convicts, they had hit records (recorded at fabled Sun Studios in Memphis with Sam Phillips) and one radio show on a country station and another on an R&B station. The Prisonaires performed many times at VIP functions at the governor’s mansion (where Elvis Presley once joined them when they sang their hit “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”). Despite certain privileges, they hardly lived an easy life. One of Johnny Bragg’s jobs was to remove the dead bodies from the electric chair, which was in frequent use in execution-happy Tennessee.
The Prisonaires were part of a music-rich environment at Tennessee State Prison. Warden James Edwards often brought in well-known musical acts such as Louis Jordan, Ernest Tubbs, Muddy Waters, Red Foley, Roy Acuff, and Gene Autry to perform for the inmates. This was part of a broader social reform program shared by Edwards and his political ally, Frank Clement, who was elected governor in 1953. According to Jay Warner’s book about the Prisonaires, Just Walkin’ in the Rain: “Many astute political figures knew desegregation was coming inevitably. The new, post-war industrial economy couldn’t function with the old agrarian models. This was the political and moral reality that Frank Clement stepped into as the state’s new governor.”
Clement was one of the first politicians with a vision of a post-cotton “New South.” He established a statewide system of vocational schools, a student loan program, increases in welfare benefits, and made free textbooks available to all students K-12. With Clement’s approval, warden Edwards created an employment bureau at the prison to find work for inmates when their sentences were completed. All of this, along with timid steps toward integration, was bitterly resisted by the Klan and others who had a stake in the old order. The visibility of the Prisonaires helped the governor to popularize his political agenda and he made sure that the connection between the two was made in press stories about the group.
By the fall of 1958, the now ex-warden Edwards found a different vehicle for the New South agenda when he became the personnel director at a Ford Motor Company plant located only three hundred yards from the prison. Many ex-cons found their way to the assembly lines.
The tradition of prison concerts continued and spread, sometimes as a political act inspired by the ferment of the 1960s and 1970s. The most notable of these were Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison concert in 1968 and B.B. King’s 1970 show at the Cook County jail in Chicago where, reminiscent of Johnny Bragg’s job of bringing out the dead, the Mississippi bluesman performed on a stage where convicts were once hanged.
By the mid-1970s, Cash had stopped playing prison shows due to his frustration with the glacial pace of prison reform. But however glaring the inadequacies of rehabilitation programs at that time, they did exist and more often than not there were jobs available on the outside for prisoners upon their release.
The momentum of that era did not last. There have only been a handful of prison shows by well-known musicians in the 21st century, mostly by artists who feel a direct connection to doing time. When Metallica played San Quentin in 2003, singer James Hetfield spoke convincingly about how being in a band was the only reason he wasn’t in the yard as a convict that day. In 2006 R&B star Lyfe Jennings played RICI prison in Ohio, a joint where he had once done time. Today, Jail Guitar Doors, which takes its name from a 1978 Clash song about musician Wayne Kramer’s imprisonment, brings shows into prisons and donates instruments for the use of inmates. Ex-con Kramer helps run the organization.
The lack of prison concerts is only one reflection of the end of any pretense of rehabilitation in what is now a corrections industry. Absent any recognition of the humanity of America’s 2.7 million prisoners, recreation and education programs that once might have kept inmates healthy as they prepared for life on the outside have been eliminated. The prisons themselves now often contain factories and other workplaces. There can be no rehabilitation when the jobs are moving inside while opportunities to work on the outside are shrinking (according to The New York Times, 5.6 million American manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2000). The world has no place but prison for the men and women currently incarcerated in the United States.
It would be unthinkable today for prisoners to go outside the walls to make records, have radio shows, or perform for a governor. Yet music, whether heard via a microchip, the inmates own hands, hearts, and feet, or even occasionally by outsiders, can help keep hope alive until we figure out how to base our society on compassion instead of control.