Fifty years after Johnny Cash gave the most famous prison concerts of all time at Folsom and San Quentin, the British penal system finally has an equivalent.
On Thursday night, the Grammy-winning African American folk singer Rhiannon Giddens delivered an intense and emotionally charged concert at HMP Wormwood Scrubs before an audience of both inmates and members of the general public who had bought tickets as part of the London jazz festival.
Performing in the prison’s Grade II-listed Romanesque chapel, Giddens and her accompanist Francesco Turrisi played an acoustic set of gospel, jazz, blues and folk songs drawn mostly from their recent collaborative album There Is No Other. Rapturously received by offenders, one of the biggest cheers of the evening came when Giddens played I’m on My Way from the album, and announced that the composition had been nominated for a Grammy for best American roots song the previous day.
The decision to allow the public into the prison to sit alongside offenders is believed to be a first. “This is the only concert where half the audience couldn’t wait to get in and half the audience couldn’t wait to get out,” presenter Alain “Fusion” Clapham announced.
Jointly organised by LJF promoters Serious and Koestler Arts, the UK’s leading prison arts charity, the concert was recorded for broadcast on National Prison Radio.
The event took 18 months of planning and security was tight. Those attending had to produce photo ID and surrender their mobile phones, and were issued with detailed instructions about what to do in the event of an incident. Yet, as one concert-goer noted, prison staff were “friendlier than some of the bouncers you meet at more conventional gigs” (or even perhaps at the Oxford Union).
The event broke further new ground in that Giddens’ support act was an ensemble of six prisoners, whose names, for security reasons, were only given as Dave, Daniel, Vince, Mark, Graham and Charles.
Spanning soul ballads, gospel and beatboxing, their original material, written specifically for the concert, was full of poignant references to freedom, family, missed opportunities and hope for a better future.
Sitting in the front row, Giddens was visibly moved by the performance. “It was beautiful,” she said afterwards. “I was telling myself: don’t cry, you’ve got to get up and perform next.” As she took the stage she insisted on a further round of applause for the ensemble
Performing at Folsom prison, Cash raised the roof by singing “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”. Giddens wisely avoided anything quite so provocative, but a tangible frisson of shared humanity ran through the audience when she sang the defiant cry of the captive: “You can take my body … but not my soul.”
With no prior experience of performing, the prison ensemble was coached over a period of several weeks by professional workshop leaders Clapham and Sherry Davis.
“We began the project as strangers, but I’ve never worked with such respect, care, compassion and a desire to achieve something great,” Clapham said. “Their songs are unflinching and honest with a rare authenticity that redefines what it is to be free. It’s been an honour to nurture their talent and I hope they go on doing it.”
The organisers hope the concert’s success has created a precedent on which they can build. “It was a unique opportunity to bring an audience into a prison for the first time,” said Sally Taylor, chief executive of Koestler Arts. “It was a chance to change the way people think about offenders and we would be disappointed if it was a one-off.” She also praised how supportive the prison authorities had been.
“This opportunity for men at Wormwood Scrubs to collaborate through music is an important step towards making positive change,” said Sara Pennington, governor of HMP Wormwood Scrubs. “The performance required participants to step outside their comfort zone, develop new skills, self-esteem and confidence.”
The following night, Giddens – who two years ago performed with inmates at Sing Sing maximum security prison in New York – was due to play for a sold-out audience on London’s South Bank. “But when the idea came up to launch our tour of Europe here in prison, I seized it,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you? It’s been an incredible and unique experience.”