by Jeff Warner, Humanities to Go presenter
The call came on a November morning: would I give my musical presentation "Banjos, Bones and Ballads" to some fifty men at the medium security prison in Berlin - more properly the Northern
New Hampshire Correctional Facility? It was to be in April, five months off. Sue, my contact at the
prison, said many of the men were musicians. The prison has recreation rooms where prisoners
can play and practice - and they had a Spanish guitar presentation recently. We set the date.
I sing old songs out of American history. Our history and folklore give us lots of murder songs.
I wondered if I should avoid them. I wondered if I should avoid the wistful love songs out of the past.
I wondered if I should avoid religious songs.
Then I remembered David McCullough's quote about how we historians only have to "make history
as interesting as it really was." We don't have to over-interpret it. Or try to make it more compelling
than it is or was. I'd just sing my old songs.
After a three-hour drive up to Berlin from Portsmouth, I made my way up the long hill toward the
prison in northwest Berlin. Ten foot fences surrounded the building, topped with impressive swirls of barbed "concertina wire." No escape.
Sue said everything I was going to take into the security area had to be logged in. Everything! I had
to leave jackets, wallets, keys, and medicines in a secure locker in reception. Then we opened all
my instrument cases and folios and briefcases. Everything - instruments, picks, capos, pencils,
water bottle, tools for repairing concertinas, notepads - was checked. I was glad we had left an hour for set up. Sue gave me an electronic device, a "body alarm," to wear on my belt. A cord dangled from it, and it had a large red button. I was to pull the cord if I ever felt I was in danger.
At last the large security doors were opened by an unseen hand. We moved into an intermediary space. The large doors closed behind us and were electronically locked. New large doors opened; we began the long walk down the quarter-mile corridor. We passed a large gym, then a substantial library and educational classrooms with computers. It felt hopeful. Later, however, Sue told me that, though there are computers there, there is no Internet allowed. Since most schools have now switched from correspondence courses to online courses, there is decreasing ability for the men to improve themselves with paper, pencil and the U. S. Mail.
Sue does an admirable job trying to find things to interest them. There is a substantial music program including several available guitars - but all with nylon strings. To prevent the men from cutting tattoos into their arms with ink made from the soles of their shoes, there were no steel stings.
We passed the entrance to the "yard," the only outside space the men have behind the barbed wire. Because of the snow and bad weather, the men had not been outside since November. The 650 men longed to be outside, I was told.
"There's not much going on for the men in here," said Sue. "Security's job is to keep everyone safe. They keep schedules on time. Security knows where everyone is, what they are doing, and where and why they are moving. The daily operation is one of counting, feeding and securing."
We entered a class room and I set up my several old instruments: banjos, including a hand-made fretless banjo from the Appalachian Mountains, concertinas, guitar. So far, I had seen no faces except those of correctional officers and civilian staff.
I also set out some twenty photos, 16" by 20" blowups, portraits of rural American singers - tradition bearers - my parents met in their folk song-collecting trips between 1938 and 1959.
Sue said I could expect thirty to forty men. Some who had signed up for the event might be pulled out at the last minute for medical or other out-of-prison appointments. The men were never informed as to when their medical, eye or dental appointments were, a precaution against interception of transporting vans.
As I do at all my shows, I set up my
instruments, then began to play 18th and 19th century dance tunes on my concertina. That gives people entering a hint of what is to come, and I find it calming for me. I played as the men entered quietly - in green shirt and pants - and sat, some in the back row, but some right up front. I continued to play, stopping to invite them to chat with each other if they wished - I was only background music. At 1 p.m. Sue came to the front, gave a full description of the Humanities Council's work, and introduced me. Without any talk, I launched into a fast banjo song, early Nashville, to break the ice. Then I took a chance and played an old country music song, "Penny's Farm," that had a simple chorus. I told its history and invited them to sing along. And they did! Hesitant perhaps, but singing with me. I set off on a little tour of old American traditional music, playing bones to a 19th century comic song, singing an old ballad of lost love, then a humorous old-world song-story of a woman who was too mean for the devil to keep down in hell - he had to send her back to her husband. With that, the ice was broken. I played old instruments, talked about the logging trade in the 19th century, and I even played my little dancing man toy, a "limberjack," to much mirth. When we got through the program, there were many questions. How were the instruments made? Who were these people in the photographs? Which photo was the one of my mother using an early recording device?
Throughout the program, except for laughter and singing along, there was a quiet decorum. As the discussion ensued and the questions came, my sense was that I was being addressed as "sir" before every question. I quickly realized I was not - but that didn't stop me from addressing each of them as "sir" as I answered and discussed. I felt an old-world sense of manners. We were all being careful, I guess.
When we ended there was a small party with pastries and coffee for all and a chance for the men to come study the photos and instruments. One man played country guitar and was interested in my 1950 Gibson, another had made a banjo long ago with a spruce head instead of an animal skin and he knew his subject. Several wanted to know details about my dancing toy. It turns out that they make wooden toys for children there at the facility. I gave out plans for the dancing man and offered to let them try the toy or the guitar. But no. "We can't touch anything; rules!" I stopped trying to put anything in anyone's hands.
The questions kept coming about the photos. Who were the four little girls singing on a North Carolina mountain top? Who was that lady playing her country fiddle? Several men came up to shake my hand before they left and to say thanks, "And not just for the music!"
After the men left, while I was packing up, Sue and I discussed the afternoon's events. She said she had never heard the men participate so. "They'll be talking about this program for weeks! For one thing, they never have anything new to write home about. Special events count. Otherwise, it's always the same here."
Jeff Warner connects 21st century audiences with the music and everyday lives of 19th century people. He presents musical traditions from the Outer Banks fishing villages of North Carolina to the lumber camps of the Adirondack Mountains and the whaling ports of New England. Warner accompanies his songs on concertina, banjo, guitar and several "pocket instruments," such as bones and Jew's harp. Warner is a Folklorist and Community Scholar for the New Hampshire Council on the Arts and has been named a 2007 State Arts Council Fellow. He has toured nationally for the Smithsonian Institution and has recorded for Flying Fish/Rounder Records and other labels. Learn more about his work and his programs on his website.