A few years ago, along with a makeshift band of friends that included the dulcet tones of Mike Eldred, blues guitarist extraordinaire, I played a concert at a maximum security prison in California. The atmosphere in this prison, once the home of the likes of Al Capone, Micky Cohen and Charles Manson was less than welcoming and as we set up our equipment in the main exercise area we could feel the heat of mistrust and suspicion from a thousand pair of eyes.
With the first song in play only had a handful of these impoverished souls paid any attention to our performance and it could well have been a ‘long shift’… had it not been for Mike Eldred. Mike’s stroke of genius that day was that he had brought along an extra ‘guitar rig’ that included a custom shop Fender Telecaster and amp.
Mike figured that in this prison there had to be one great old blues player and that if we could give this guy the stage for an hour or so it would be a priceless gift of inclusion… and… we might well win the hearts and the attention of the inmates.
It did just that. After the first song Mike called out to the ‘greater audience’ for the bluesman to come forward. Mike held up the extra guitar and once again shouted out his ‘alter call’ for the blues man to come to the makeshift stage to join the band.
This started some kind of tribal banter and as people looked around at each other one particular name was being called out again and again and soon we had a chant on our hands… and we had found our blues man. He was the real deal, an older black gentleman of the John Lee Hooker variety. He stepped forward, slung the guitar round his shoulder and started to tell it like it really is… and with that, hundreds of the ‘local residences’ sauntered over to become a very interactive audience.
For the next hour or so we shuffled and rocked along with the Bluesman of Terminal Island… and as we traded solos and sang backing vocals to his beautiful gravelly voice something wonderful happened to us all. For a brief moment we became intimate friends. Music can do that to you.
Not only did we win the hearts of the prison mates but also the thanks and appreciation from the Warden and prison directors.
The generosity and outward hospitality of our band that day opened the door for others to go back into that prison again and again to nurture and love the inmates.
1 [ mass noun ] the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure
2 [ count noun ] a person or thing that is included within a whole