Prison Choirs

Some of the more interesting papers I came across while researching my book were by Mary L. Cohen, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa who has been researching prison choirs. The prisoners she quotes sound exactly like the singers in my own choir.

“The most wonderful time I had in about 8 years … it touched my heart so much that I almost cried three times.” “This is how I felt about the concert: ecstatic, elated, excited, joyful, grateful.”

Here’s one I didn’t find at the time that looks like a must read, Mother Theresa, how can I help you? The story of Elvera Voth, Robert Shaw, and the Bethel College Benefit Sing-Along for Arts in Prison, Inc. “This event, organized by his longtime friend and collaborator, Elvera Voth, was Shaw’s final out of town engagement prior to his death. It was as well a remarkable public testimony to a passionate belief, shared by Voth and Shaw, that choral singing could be an instrument of social justice, healing and empowering the disenfranchised.”

I’d come across a prison choir while working on the Hart Island chapter of my book, Waiting For My Cats to Die. Hart Island is the site of New York’s Potters Field and it’s maintained by the Department of Correction. While looking through the Department of Correction archives, I came across a crude but endearing inmate-produced magazine called The Hart Islander (inmates were housed on the island for a time). The December 25, 1959 issue begins, “Our first issue—our baby—our sweetheart,” and there’s a description of their Christmas show.

“From it’s [sic] spirit-lifting choral beginning to it’s [sic] shoulder shakin’, moving end, the X-mas show was completely enjoyable … The future for Three Notes would be assured with proper management and polish … their delivery of Walking by the River and I Laughed at Love were quite good, perhaps better, than vocal groups on the scene today … Mr. Parrish does very good work with Caravan and All the Way with a most interesting vibrato that could sell records.”

While looking around for an appropriate picture for this post I came across a 1950s prison doo-wop group from Tennessee called The Prisonaires who actually did sell records. They had a radio hit called Just Walkin’ in the Rain. It’s quite beautiful and worth listening to all the way to the end.

The picture is from a 1953 Life Magazine article titled, Stars Behind Bars: Life with the Prisonaires. More about the Prisonaires here.

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

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