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BRIXTON PRISON BLUES
BRIXTON PRISON BLUES
On Thursday March 20th, Alabama 3 Acoustic performed live at Brixton Prison. What follows is an article from today's Guardian newspaper by journalist Duncan Campbell, who was one of those invited to attend the gig.
After Presley and Cash, Alabama 3 get prison blues
By Duncan Campbell
Saturday March 22, 2008
Prison concert is part of Rock Against Racism's reincarnation to fight BNP
It was the only gig in town where you had to be on the guest list to get out rather than in. And while the chapel at HMP Brixton, south London, may not have quite the capacity of the Albert Hall or the cachet of Koko, this week it hosted one of those shows likely to be remembered by every one of its extremely select audience.
The Alabama 3, whose song Woke Up This Morning gave The Sopranos its theme tune, took their eclectic music behind bars at the invitation of the prison's governor, Paul McDowell. The band are not from Alabama - they're local and there are more than three of them - but the reception from the 100 or so inmates could not have been warmer if they had been bearing personal pardons from the Queen.
From the opening bars of a specially adapted version of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues - "I'm stuck in Brixton prison!" - lead singer Larry Love, all dark glasses and bonhomie, established a rapport with those who might identify with the song's lines "I know I had it coming/I know I can't be free". The band, which included Rock Freebase on guitar, Harpo Strangelove on harmonica, and the Rev Errol T and the Rev B Atwell both on vocals - possibly not all real names - ran through a repertoire which included Rehab and U Don't Dans 2 Tekno Any More.
When the band's youngest and smallest member, Devlin Love, concluded with her interpretation of John Prine's haunting Speed and The Sound of Loneliness - final line "out there running just to be on the run" - inmates cheered.
But the concert was not about giving a bunch of Brixton's 800 residents, most of them on remand, a jolly afternoon's break. It coincided with the 30th anniversary of Rock Against Racism (RAR) and was part of that organisation's reincarnation at a time when the far-right BNP is active and seeking votes at the May 1 local elections. The band came in under RAR's auspices, as McDowell is committed to fighting racism in a prison with about 60 nationalities.
"The roots of this go back all the way to my involvement as a teenager in the Anti-Nazi League and on the periphery of RAR," said McDowell, whose musical influences include the Ramones, Patti Smith, Joy Division and A Certain Ratio. "I have always had an interest in race relations and I've been able to cross-pollinate that in terms of my professional life as a prison governor. We're using entertainment to get some key messages across about racism and diversity. We don't have segregation here [as in many US prisons] and we work very hard to ensure that is not the direction we end up going."
The other reason for the band's visit was to help publicise the Jail Guitar Doors programme, through which instruments are given to prisoners to encourage them to learn to play.
The project, named after a Clash song, was set up in memory of Joe Strummer. Some of the donated guitars bear the legend This Machine Kills Time, a play on the old slogan Woody Guthrie scrawled on his guitar, This Guitar Kills Fascists. Inmates were also shown a film about the JGD programme, complete with shots of one former prisoner who got to play alongside Billy Bragg at Glastonbury when the organisation was launched last year.
Geoff Martin, who works on both projects, and was in Brixton for the concert, said that he thought music could be a powerful weapon against racism. "We want to get this message out to as many people as possible," he said. "I think some of the people from 30 years ago need to re-engage and we need to get young people engaged as well."
So what did the captive audience think? "Fantastic," said Antonio. "I thought the crowd here would have been sceptical, but they weren't. What did I think of their choice of songs? Appropriate, in a word. They were really out for the interests of the prisoners. What can I say - it lifted me."
Another prisoner, Mikey, was also impressed. "It was wicked. I had never heard them before but they make you laugh and the vibes were great."
Tony Bodnar, a prison officer whose mother was a jazz singer and who himself plays in a blues and rock band, will be one of the instructors in the guitar programme. "There is a lot of negativity around in prison and this is one way to make a difference."
Larry Love said the band would be performing another concert for RAR at the slightly more accessible Brixton Academy at the end of April. "You know there is a disproportionate number of black people in prison, so it's part of the struggle. And we hate the BNP too."
It may have been 1957 when Elvis Presley starred in Jailhouse Rock and made the combination of music and prison hip, but the real link was established by Johnny Cash , the Man in Black. With a carefully cultivated outlaw image, despite only a few days behind bars, Cash performed at Folsom prison in California in 1968 along with his band, the Tennessee Three. The following year, he performed at San Quentin. The concept travelled to Sweden in 1972 when Cash treated inmates at Osteraker prison to I Walk the Line. Since then, countless bands have played in jails. The Alabama 3, whose new album is the appropriately named Hits and Exit Wounds and who embark on a UK tour next month, are the latest in a long line of British performers to entertain inmates, including Billy Bragg and Mick Jones from the Clash.
Alabama 3 headline 'Hope Not Hate' at Brixton Academy on April 30th. You can find more details here >
To learn more about Jail Guitar Doors and the campaign to bring musical instruments into British prisons, visit their website here >