Yesterday was the screening of Music From the Big House. You might remember that I already wrote a post about it: You Can Hear It Through The Prison Walls: Music with Rita Chiarelli and of Johnny Cash.
The making of this documentary, Music From the Big House, began when Rita began her journey down the Blues Highway – U.S. Route 61. Her first visit into the Louisiana prison, Angola, began by a cold call from a near by gas station to ask if she could come in a visit, to see the prison where there is a rich history of blues music – including Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene.
Within the documentary’s soundtrack, Rita writes:
While doing research, with the intent that I would make every stop that is a must on this pilgrimage, I came across Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola.
The information about this place jumped out at me. This was a place that had a musical history, a history that had been archived in recordings – inmates recorded as they worked, spirituals, work songs, and blues… and songs by their famous ‘son’ Lead Belly.
It was my quest to add to the prison’s musical history, or maybe I should say ‘to provide an update’.
During her visit, a discussion with the warden began… after hearing that many musicians have performed concerts in the prison, Rita had a unique idea – to perform a concert with the men of Angola. That was something that had never been done before and the documentary was part of documenting this new experience and the present state of music at Angola. Music is performed in the genres of jazz (The Jazzmen), country (Little Country), and gospel (Pure Heart Messenger).
From each of the bands, the audience has the opportunity to get to know the some of the men via conversations with Rita. One of the men we get to meet is Ray Jones from the band Pure Heart Messenger. Ray is also Angola’s law librarian and in the film we get to see him in the law library where he also religiously counsels fellow men behind bars.
Through the documentary, we see Rita struggle with being in Angola… one scene is of her in her hotel room and after a verse on her guitar she becomes heavy and embraces her guitar. Later on we see her express getting to know the men who are truly sorry for the crimes that they have been committed (and that perhaps their sentence and confinement is unjust) and then she expresses that we also cannot forget the victims. During Q and A, an audience member asked if the men in the film had a chance to see it. They did. Rita stated that she was nervous during the scene when she talked about the victims, unsure how the men would take it. They expressed that thinking about the victims was part of their journey too. At the end of the screening in Angola, Rita received a standing ovation.
Lately I’ve been struggling with handling the emotions of being in the PIC and being aware of how unjust the system is and how to handle the stress of the atmosphere. Being in the jail library isn’t necessarily stressful nor do I feel in any danger, but getting to know the patrons and having an understanding of their situation, etc. has been difficult lately. I attempted to ask Rita how she handled the situation of being in and out of Angola…
In the Q and A, an very young boy asked her how the first time in the prison made her feel; her answer was that she couldn’t get it out of her head – the size of Angola is the size of one of the New England sates… which one I don’t remember now that I’m home.
And, in the jacket of the sound track she wrote:
To say the experience changed me is an understatement. I’ve been changed forever.
I was nervous to talk to her… not everyday do you meet someone with the title of Queen of Blues! Oh, goodness! I could barely ask my question without crying because I’ve let the emotions of trying to find the right balance dwell for so long without knowing how addressing them. Rita gave me a big hug and let me have my moment. She pretty much told me I would figure it out. I don’t really remember what else she told me, but before I left, she held my hand tight and it felt like she wouldn’t let it go. Having someone who understood what it is like to have to deal with one’s emotions of being in the PIC expressing that I’ll find my way and provide physical comfort through a hug and holding my hand was incredibly comforting (especially when being far from home and away from a community where long hugs were abundant)!
So, Rita Chiarelli, thank you for the hug and sharing your musical journey with us. What you have shared is shaping my journey with prison librarianship.
For more information on Rita Chiarelli’s documentary visit the documentary’s website. Rita’s tour is half way done – check out the rest of the tour dates on the website! Part of the sound track’s proceeds are going to Angola’s music department.
In case you missed it before, here’s the trailer: