We don’t need Orange Is The New Black to tell us that prison’s a tough place—the lack of privacy, being told what and when to eat, and the constant, unnerving threat of violence as abhorrent and meaningless as humans are able to create. The experience is dehumanizing, but every now and then, a brilliant (if brief) light of creativity and hope illuminates these darkened dens of iniquity in the form of artistic expression. Its source is often music offered to the incarcerated by sympathetic artists from every musical genre.
The most famous prison concert and recording has to be Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, but the spectrum of performances is widely varied—from The Cramps playing a mental hospital to Jerry Garcia serenading prisoners on a bright summer day in Oregon to even Frank Sinatra and Count Basie lending their time and talents to the greater good. Here are 10 performances in prisons that offered a brief respite of hope to society’s forgotten souls. All of these recordings stand as some of the strongest testaments we have to the power of music to heal and unify.
Johnny Cash, who played dozens of prisons throughout his storied career, first became enamored with Folsom Prison after watching the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison with his Air Force unit in 1953, and was inspired to write “Folsom Prison Blues” by the movie. The song was hugely popular with inmates—especially those stacking their time at the song’s namesake, who frequently wrote to Cash begging him to perform at the jailhouse. Beyond the countless books, articles and Oscar award-winning film inspired by this groundbreaking performance the years since, the show also served as the launching point of inmate Glen Sherley’s brief and tragic music career after Cash unexpectedly covered his song “Greystone Chapel” at the show, with a shocked Sherley beaming from the front row. At San Quentin has become a cultural cornerstone over the years, and has inspired countless prison performances since.
The night before Cash’s legendary show at Folsom, the prison’s preacher handed him a recording of a song called “Greystone Chapel,” penned by an inmate doing a three-year stretch for armed robbery named Glen Sherley. Cash was so moved by the song (which was inspired by Folsom’s chapel) that he stayed up the night before the show learning the tune, and performed it the next day, giving Sherley the shock of his troubled life. Cash’s cover lead to Eddy Arnold recording Sherley’s song “Portrait Of My Woman”, which provided Sherley with enough income and notoriety to convince California penal authorities to allow him to record the fantastic Live at Vacaville in 1971 while still incarcerated at the prison. When Sherley (who also met and got advice from Spade Cooley while in the joint) was released later that year, Cash met him at the prison gates with a publishing contract for his House of Cash imprint and attempted to take the budding songwriter under his wing. Unfortunately Sherley did not adjust well to his newfound freedom or his burgeoning stardom, and he was eventually kicked out of Cash’s inner circle for his erratic behavior and violent threats against various people. The clearly talented Sherley drifted into obscurity and struggled with drugs and alcohol for years before tragically ending his own life in 1978.
B.B. King was at a career crossroads of sorts when he recorded this classic record in a Chicago jail, and he is in absolute top form throughout the fiery performance. Backed by a crack band and horn section, neither King, nor his trusted ax Lucille have ever sounded better, and the inmates and their wives (who were also in attendance) hang on his every expressive note. King holds the room’s cons and their ladies in the palm of his hand throughout the performance, and one can almost imagine the prison officials shooting each other nervous glances as the excited shouts from the crowd got rowdier and louder as the show wore on.
When Jerry Garcia and John Kahn played this acoustic show at the Oregon State Pen in 1982, The Grateful Dead’s pied piper probably had a few disciples in the audience (especially given the Deadheads’ proclivity for narcotics, the fact that Pacific Northwest is prime Grateful Dead territory, and the excited cheers that greet Dead favorites like “Friend of the Devil” on this legendary recording). One can only imagine what was going through these folks’ minds for 53 magical minutes as the music transported them back to their happier days on tour, with memories of soaring through the cosmos on the wings of LSD wings floating through their heads while the band provided an afternoon of transcendence in the most unlikely of places.
On June 13, 1978 The Cramps and The Mutants, along with about dozen punks made the trek up from San Francisco to perform a show for the patients at the California Department of State Hospitals. Some perfectly rough black-and-white footage of the festivities exists, and it’s about as strange and spectacular as you’d imagine. The Cramps play the show totally straight, with Lux Interior romping around a stage full of gleefully dancing and singing mental patients while amused-looking guitarist Bryan Gregory coolly surveys the anarchic festivities with a constant cigarette pinned between his broadly smiling lips. “We’re The Cramps, and we drove 3,000 miles from New York City to play for you,” Interior tells the audience, ”Somebody told me you people are crazy… but you seem alright to me.”
Reggae legends Black Uhuru played this prison in California in the midst of a partial lockdown, but the previously tense atmosphere seems to have been joyous lifted (however briefly) once the music hit the air. Since this show was broadcast on FM radio, the sound quality is pristine, and the euphoric exaltations of joy by the prisoners during the concert’s call-and-response moments will cause goose bumps for anyone listening today. For their part, Black Uhuru seem to also feed off the energy as the show goes on, and the passion in their playing and voices is palpable.
Two versions of The Sex Pistols’ 1977 concert in Chelmsford Top Security Prison exist in album form: there’s the original 1990 release that features tons of overdubs added after the fact by the band’s soundman Steve Goodman and the overdub-free release that came later. Goodman’s numerous additions to the original recording range from the understandable (fixing sound errors, adding to the bass and vocals) to the utterly ridiculous additions of the sounds of a “riot” occurring while the Pistols played their set and the use of a Johnny Rotten-imitating voice actor to make his goading of the audience seem even more over-the-top than it already was. Yet another chapter in the Sex Pistols’ history where legend and reality blur, comparing the recordings is an interesting experience.
MCs One Be Lo and Senim Silla met and formed Binary Star while incarcerated in Michigan’s Hiawatha Correctional Institute in the late 1990s. While they were locked up, the duo honed their socially conscious style that praised art over commerce and called out the materialism rampant in popular hip-hop at the time. The rhymes they wrote in Hiawatha populated the group’s debut Waterworld, which was recorded for $500 and released independently upon the duo’s release from prison. After touring Michigan extensively (both MCs were still on parole and couldn’t leave the state) and getting some funds together, Binary Star remixed and re-released the album as Masters of the Universe, and an underground hip-hop classic was born. Everything about the record is mind-blowing, from its production to the varied flows each MC employs to the fact that its origin was a freezing prison yard in Michigan’s northernmost eastern peninsula. Unfortunately, Binary Star broke up not long after Masters of the Universe dropped, but the record remains an undisputed and influential 90s hip-hop classic.
Ol’ Blue Eyes played multiple prisons in his career, and when he did, he brought out all stops and treated the cons to the kind of full band performance you’d expect in 1960s Vegas casino. Sinatra actually had the idea of recording an album at San Quentin a few years before Cash, but the album never came to fruition. Although this clip is short it’s notable for two reasons. First, Sinatra is completely and utterly at ease, laughing aloud and snapping along like he’s performing at the Palms. Secondly, the meanest-looking dude in the yard—the one with a facial scar not unlike The Joker’— is also the one having the most the fun. The look of unaltered joy on his hardened face says it all about the power of these performances.
Of all the artists on this list, Fugazi is perhaps the least surprising to have played a prison, as the group was widely known for its very left-leaning politics and activism. The band was so overtly liberal that our government, in its infinite wisdom, was tracking the band’s movements and they toured around the country and the world. These clear and present dangers to The American Way Of Life extended their reign of liberal terror the day after Christmas in 1990, giving the somewhat perplexed, but incredibly excited and thankful crowd a welcome treat. It’s a great moment that was captured in part in on Jem Cohen’s film on the band Instrument; and is available in full at Fugazi’s amazingly comprehensive and pay-what-you-will archive of live shows at Discord.com (to purchase the show, click here).