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Prison Blues

Updated: Jun 16


Picture: President Nelson Mandela on a 1994 visit to his Robben Island cell, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. (Jurgen Schadeberg/Getty Images)


Lockdown #3 may feel like being sentenced to house arrest with indefinite detention. When will it end?! The Hub's favourite housebound anthem is Ich bleib zu Haus (I'm stuck at home) by German retro-singer Max Raabe - with thanks to Caroline Oliver.


But this five and a half hour 4-zone Prison Blues playlist speaks to a more brutal regime where sentences can be for life, or life can be cut short by noose or lethal injection. Zones: Rock & Pop: Johnny Cash to Tool, Upbeat: Miley Cyrus (feat. Dua Lipa) to Makito, Chill Zone: Mental Resonance to The Band, Wind Down: Jóhann Jóhannsson to LadySmith Black Mambazo.


Imagine the double whammy of being in prison during Covid with reports of being locked up for up to 23 hours a day, ironically to maintain social distancing, amid evidence the Covid death rate in prisons (is) three times higher than outside. The playlist was inspired by the Hub's friend Emma Dogliani, a freelance Soprano who spearheads a project bringing music and a choir to prisoners at a London prison and whose grandparents were pioneer members of the Howard Reform League for Penal Reform.


Johnny Cash, The Man in Black, gets us going from his infamous 1968 Fulsom State Prison live set followed by Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock. B.B. King brings the blues with his 1971 album Live in Cook County Jail - with thanks to the A Record A Day musos group.


Picture: "Ugly sister" Emma Dogliani in Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella) at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. (Clive Barda)


Punk rockers The Clash gate crash with their hidden gem Jail Guitar Doors and the rappers sprinkle a series of Explicit-tagged songs ending with Doggs Nate and Snoop.


Classical music has had its own brush behind bars. Composer Dame Ethel Smyth spent two months in Holloway Prison for her Suffragette activities. Conductor Thomas Beecham, found her conducting her fellow inmates' singing with a toothbrush! Smyth's last large scale work was The Prison where the 72 year-old "presented a direct conversation between an innocent man, jailed and awaiting execution, and his own soul, with choral interjections representing both the human inner life and the heavenly firmament. The Soul guides the Prisoner through his doubts and fears, towards acceptance of himself and his life, achieving reconciliation with death, and inner peace. There are obvious spiritual, though not specifically religious, parallels with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius".


An opening night fracas of Parade, Erik Satie's collaboration with Jean Cocteau, led to Satie spending eight days in jail. Conscientious objector, Michael Tippett, was sentenced to three months in Wormword Scrubs for refusing to fight in the Second World War. He dedicated A Child of Our Time to Herschel Grynszpan, the 17 year-old Jewish refugee, whose murder of Paris-based German diplomat Ernst vom Rath was the Nazi's excuse for Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), the 9 November, 1938 night of murder, larceny and concentration camp internment of Jews and other designated social and political enemies of the Reich.


Bach composed his keyboard exercises, the Orgelbüchlein, from behind bars. Beethoven's only opera is the story of Leonore, who rescues her husband Florestan from death in a political prison disguised as prison guard Fidelio. The composer was jailed for vagrancy on the streets of Baden in 1820. American composer and theorist Henry Cowell served four years from 1936 in San Quentin State Prison on a 'moral' same-sex charge. Inside, Cowell produced over 60 compositions and conducted the prison band. Pianist Sarah Cahill, sought to reclaim Cowell's reputation and prison work with a series of 2014 San Quentin concerts.

Picture: A portrait of Ethel Smyth in Holloway Prison conducting singing prisoners with her toothbrush from the East End Portraits website.


A trio of Irish prison songs begins with the opening lines from Act I of Brendan Behan's 1956 play, The Quare Fellow, set in a canal side Dublin city prison twenty four hours before the execution of a condemned prisoner, 'the quare fellow', who never appears on stage. These opening lines are now better known as the beginning of the traditional song, The Auld Triangle, performed here by The Dubliners.


The Quare Fellow: Act I


A prisoner sings: he is in one of the punishment cells.


A hungry feeling came o'er me stealing

And the mice were squealing in my prison cell.

And that auld triangle

Went jingle jangle

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.


The curtain rises.


Several songs muse on different notions of prison with Karl Tchaker's Prisoner of my thoughts, Alec Benjamin's Mind is a Prison and James Brown in Sam Cooke mode on Prisoner of Love. Randy Newman's instrumental Going Home from Toy Story 3 signifies the Pixar characters' escape from Sunnyside Daycare, a toy prison.


More familiar prison films are referenced with themes from the 2017 update to Papillon, the hard-hitting Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman 1973 vehicle, Paul Newman's tragic 1967 portrayal in Cool Hand Luke and hauntingly, Liam Neeson's finest role in the 1993 Holocaust horrorfest, Schindler's List. None of which are an easy watch.


Nor is the 1995 death row drama Dead Man Walking with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, as Bruce Springsteen's gravelly voice walks you to the lethal injection chair, followed by Johnny Cash counting down 25 Minutes to Go to the noose live to an ironically raucous audience of inmates at Folsom Prison.


The music ends with Beth Caravalho's lyrical Meu Homem (Carta a Nelson Mandela) and Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Zulu a Capello tribute Long Walk to Freedom to the terrorist-turned-President who out-lived his island prison to steer South Africa from prison state to one adult-one-vote democratic elections on 27 April, 1994.

Picture Grid: 3 Stages of the man - Nelson Mandela: Before, In and After Prison (Reuters/Landov; Udo Weitz/AP; Bailey's African History Archive)


The picture grid below shows Mandela laughing in the early 60s, before he was arrested on 5 August, 1962 and sentenced on 12 June, 1964 to life in prison on four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the Apartheid government. The government banned the release of photos of Mandela* during his long prison years - pictured here on Robben Island with fellow armed-struggler Walter Sisulu.


So on the day of his release from Victor Verster prison, Cape Town on 11 February,1994 few people knew what he had come to look like - pictured later that day speaking from the balcony of Cape Town City Hall. Before speaking, he realised he had left his glasses in prison so he had to borrow a pair from his wife Winnie.


A 2013 Los Angeles Times article by Robyn Dixon "Robben Island: The place that changed Nelson Mandela" outlines the impact his prison years had on Mandela's transition from angry armed struggle leader to the unifying President he later became:


"Robben Island left him damaged. But without the years of self-examination and meditation - seeing positive things in his darkest hours - Mandela might never have become such a remarkable leader after he walked free."


Audio Links


You can listen to the The Hub's Prison Blues playlist via the link below.


* John Tilston refers to these South African government restrictions, on reporting related to Nelson Mandela, during his time working in the media in Johannesburg, in his Desert Island Discs interview with The Hub.





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