It Was Christmas in Prison….

This December I tried something new: performing live music shows in the local prisons – specifically the Remand Centre and Calgary Correctional Centre.

The tough part was deciding what to play. I wasn’t sure if Christmas music was what inmates would want to hear, even though the holiday season was the reason for booking me. Who wants to hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” when this certainly isn’t likely? Or “Here Comes Santa Claus”, when clearly, the fat man would not make it past the barbed wire fence?

So I gave it some great thought, and then decided “leaving the door open” would be the best choice for these heavily secured facilities.

What I mean is, after playing one or two Christmas songs, I took requests from the inmates.

Now you might think that grown men who are forced to all wear matching blue jumpsuits and orange rubber shoes, sitting with their backs against the wall on the floor of a gymnasium, might not be too happy an audience. And I was pretty nervous when I first walked in.

But after a big howdy and belting out a few notes, these fellows were probably the most appreciative listeners I have ever performed for. They were so joyful to hear live music, wooping and clapping loudly. It made me want to give them the very best I could, especially since it might be a long time before they got to hear live music again.

What did they request? Johnny Cash. Folsom Prison Blues of course. Also some Elvis, Ian Tyson, Patsy Cline and others. On one night, a small group of black inmates, clustered together, shouted, “Gangsta Rap!” I laughed and said “Come on, do I look like I know any Gangster rap? Ok, I do know one rap tune. But you got to give me some leeway…” And I did my best rendition of K-Os’s Krabbuckit to huge woops and hollars. The organizers fell off their chairs in disbelief.

But the pinnacle of the evening was performing John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison”.  I’m not sure if Prine ever performed it in a prison, but the inmates were glued. Here are the lyrics – read on below to hear how the inmates reacted.

It was Christmas in prisonAnd the food was real goodWe had turkey and pistolsCarved out of woodAnd I dream of her alwaysEven when I don’t dreamHer name’s on my tongueAnd her blood’s in my stream
Wait awhile eternityOld mother nature’s got nothing on meCome to meRun to meCome to me, nowWe’re rollingMy sweetheartWe’re flowingBy God
She reminds me of a chess gameWith someone I admireOr a picnic in the rainAfter a prairie fireHer heart is as bigAs this whole goddamn jailAnd she’s sweeter than saccharineAt a drug store sale
Repeat Chorus
The search light in the big yardSwings round with the gunAnd spotlights the snowflakesLike the dust in the sunIt’s Christmas in prisonThere’ll be music tonightI’ll probably get homesickI love youGoodnight
Repeat Chorus

That last couple lines “I’ll probably get homesick, I love you. Good night.”  broke my heart, and the heartbreak in the room was palpable, followed by huge woops and applause.  What a thing.

There’s something about seeing these fellas and feeling their humanity.  Just seeing their faces – some looked like my Dad, some like my son.

I learned that inmates are just people who are in the system- paying their dues. They aren’t necessarily the worst of humanity – those people are the tyrants in power, dropping bombs on innocent people. As a performing musician, I’d say the inmates were some of the finest, most appreciative people I’ve ever played for. Many of them thanked me individually and shook my hand.

I later found out that I was the first musician who had ever volunteered to perform in these facilities, and that kind of sunk in.

So, maybe the “I love you. Good night.” hit a real chord.

Thank you to the great John Prine, and thank you to the staff and inmates. 

That’s what Christmas in Prison is all about. And maybe putting music “where it matters” is what live music is all about too, at least for me.  (Just don’t ask for photos, none were allowed!)


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