The MUSE

Follow-Me-Down

By WALLACE BAINE

From the work songs, field hollers and Negro spirituals of the antebellum South to the many folk songs that emerged from prisons in the early 20th century, American music has often been deeply rooted in a denial of freedom.

From the African music of American slaves grew blues and gospel and its many offshoots from jazz to country to blues to funk to hip-hop. And as filmmaker and musical scholar Ben Harbert points out, many of the most well-known songs of the folk vernacular – “Goodnight Irene,” “Black Betty,” “Midnight Special” and others – are believed to have originated in prisons.

As a filmmaker, Harbert decided to explore music’s role in contemporary prison in “Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians,” a documentary showing Friday at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz.

Harbert was revamping the songbook kept by the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago when he noticed the number of songs that had come out of prisons.

“Being aware that in the 1990s, during the largest boom in the privatization of prisons that the U.S. had had the highest incarceration rate ever, I just put the two things together and wondered what was happening there now.”

Harbert took his camera into three Louisiana prisons – the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) and the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. While there, he traced what role music plays in the lives of those incarcerated.

In the 1930s, the great musical folklorists John and Alan Lomax visited Angola in their search for original American vernacular music, and Harbert – who will be on hand for a Q&A session following the Friday screening – was aware that he was following in their footsteps.

“I hit up the corrections departments in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi,” he said, outlining the states in which the father-son Lomax team had visited, “and Louisiana was the one that opened their doors to me. And, that worked out well because Angola is not only one of the most notorious prisons in American history, that’s the one where Leadbelly came from.”

Leadbelly was the stage name of Huddie Ledbetter, a towering figure in the history of American folk, having penned such memorable songs as “Goodnight Irene” and “Rock Island Line.” Other musicians who had had stints at Angola include Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, Freddy Fender and Robert Pete Williams.

Of course, Harbert came into Angola in a wildly different era. He was living in Los Angeles at the time and had to convince both the correctional staff and the inmates that he wasn’t on the look out for America’s next great musical star.

“One of the ways I got buy-in from the staff of the prison was to make clear to them that this wasn’t about discovering talent, but discovering why music was meaningful. That got them on my side more.”

As a result, “Follow Me Down” isn’t about showcasing any particular musicians in the three prisons profiled – such an approach, said Harbert, would not only have met resistance from the prison staff, but would have generated blowback from victims rights groups as well. Instead, the film focuses on how music functions as part of the experience of serving time.

“My interest as a musician and as a scholar,” said Harbert, “is to figure out what is music good for beyond talent? How does it work for us? How is it meaningful? What job does it do?”

Harbert was able to develop rapport with the musicians in prison because, he said, he was there not to ask them about their crime, but only to talk about music. And it was through music that these inmates were able to express what they could not any other way.

“There’s an element to which we imagine music to be expressive, that somehow it belies this authentic self. We call out people like Garth Brooks for singing about being poor, and we expect some authenticity to the voice of the singer.

“At the same time, music is performance that allows you to wear a mask, and to be someone who you’re not. An inmate might be uncomfortable saying that he’s scared or that he misses his mother or that he’s worried about something. But he can sing a song that expresses that and he can always deny the intent in the name of performance.”

What he found once inside was a wide array of music, but musical genres in prison do not exist on a level playing field. Gospel and other forms of religious music are not only tolerated but encouraged, while hip-hop and similar styles are not.

“Today, prisons are much more likely to condone and sponsor a group that’s doing religious music than they are a death-metal band. That’s really shifted over the past 20 years or so. There was much more secular music in the ’70s and rap in the ’80s.”

While in Angola and the other prisons, Harbert said he was faced with many of the race, class and social-justice issues that are common in conversations about the prison industry. But, he said, he wasn’t there to comment on such a topic.

“As a citizen, I think these issues are very important,” he said. “But if I had gone into this project with the idea of making a film about how racist prisons are, I wouldn’t have made it through a day. The prisons are just too sensitive about that. I’m not doing investigative journalism, nothing with a direct political message. But I’m happy if there’s some sort of collaterol damage, if there might be someone inspired by this film to stand up and do something.”

Short sidebar:

“Follow Me Down” is being sponsored in Santa Cruz by the locally based William James Association, which has long been part of developing arts and music programs in California prisons. Jack Bowers of the WJA said that his organization sponsored such programs in state prisons for more than 30 years until the program was eliminated in 2010. Bowers himself was an arts instructor in Soledad state prison.

He said that the WJA is currently working to reinstate the music/arts/literary programs in state prison by developing a pilot program. The program is not seeking donors. To learn more, go to williamjamesassociation.org.

{ FRIDAY. 7 p.m. Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $10. Details: www.riotheatre.com }

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