Written and performed by Rockelle Gregory
Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women
ONLY TIME - LOUISIANA CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTE FOR WOMEN
"See, when it rains it pours / and the heart gets sore. / And when it pours, it storms, / And the pain come rushin’ in at once."
"Only Time" is a song written and performed by Rockelle Gregory, an inmate at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. It’s featured in Follow Me Down, a documentary about music in Louisiana prisons, produced by Georgetown professor Benjamin Harbert.
Ben shared this track and two others with the American Guide, as well as graciously imparting some of his insights from the experience of recording modern day prison music. Read today’s earlier posts on the project here and here. What follows is the conclusion of our interview with Ben:
A/G: I think there’s a tendency among music lovers on the outside to romanticize prison music. But Lead Belly, Merle Haggard and 2Pac aren’t the rule. What’s the reality?
BH: During filming, we regularly recorded the ambient tone of the room for use in post-production. When I explained to inmate Clay Logan what we were doing, he replied, “I never thought of prison having ambiance." Prison is awful. Recently, I asked Anna Lomax Wood, Alan Lomax’s daughter, why he never returned to Angola after 1934. He returned to other prisons but not Angola. She said he always talked about how terrible and depressing it was there and suspects that he simply didn’t want to go back into that environment. I’ve done extensive work in many California prisons and visited one here in Washington, DC. Louisiana is perhaps the poorest. It has a notorious history of having inmate guards, a rampant prostitution ring and abhorrent work conditions. It has been under federal receivership. Guys tell me that they used to sleep with catalogs taped to their chest in case someone tried to stab them at night. There is nothing romantic about that. It’s simply terrifying.
Today, the conditions at Angola and newer Louisiana prisons are improved. It’s not as stark as New Folsom prison, but the filth, the stench and the amount of people who have given up on life is overwhelming. The amazing thing is that people create beauty in these environments. It’s easy to throw a story of redemption on a prison narrative or to have prison be the hell from which natural-born-criminals wait to be broken out. The reality is that an enormous amount of people are held in prison—especially the poor and minorities—for making very unfortunate decisions. There are many Americans who cannot take the risks that other Americans take for granted. The War on Drugs and Truth-In-Sentnecing laws have left our country with a burgeoning prison population who, because of their conviction, have a harder time getting work. There is nothing glamorous about that. Prison is like being stuck at the DMV and not being able to leave. In fact it’s worse than that, but the point is that it’s a place where no one wants to be and no one can trust each other. The prison officials receive people and have little to no say in their conviction and sentencing. It’s remarkable that at Angola, you can find some inmates, guards and administrators working together to make it a better place, but that dance is complicated and fraught with mistrust. As a music lover, prison is still a site where you can discover why music matters. The arts can create alternative worlds that offer escape from and transformation of our day-to-day worlds. That said, music can also create some intense arguments, manipulation and inequities. It’s important to see both aspects of music’s role in our lives. We’re still better off having music and the arts than not.
A/G: What kind of music do people perform? Are there particular genres that folks gravitate to or is it really across the spectrum?
BH: All kinds but you find the usual suspects more than anything else—R&B, rock, gospel, rap, country, and pop. Angola and LCIW have more religious music because those are the opportunities. At Hunt, there is more secular music. One interesting thing is that there is a lot of style mixing. First, there are only so many musicians, so they tend to play together regardless of musical taste. Second, many musicians get bored and take advantage of the resources they have there: each other. Third, music becomes an opportunity to mix racially without repercussion from the yard. A white musician can say that he hangs out with a black musician because they play music together and at the same time, feel some relief from the politics of the yard.
A/G: Does music in prison tell us anything about music on the outside?
BH: Yes. We have an amazing capacity to create despite our situation. It doesn’t end there, however. We also create because of where we are situated because music has the capacity to situate us.
* * *
Follow Me Down is now touring around the country. Some lucky New Englanders might be able to catch it this week:
If you’re not near one of those locations, like the project on Facebook and find out when the doc is coming to your town.
(Photo: Louisiana Department of Corrections)
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