The prison gig has been a staple of live performance since Johnny Cash played Folsom in 1968, with variations on the theme like the Cramps’ legendary performance at a California Psychiatric Hospital (revisited in the documentary We Were There to Be There). Some bands who play institutions may not be far away from inhabiting them. When the Sex Pistols played Chelmsford Prison, it was not the first time guitarist Steve Jones had been inside, what with his 14 criminal convictions. In fact, Jones has credited the band for saving him from a life of crime.
BB King gave one of the best performances of his career from behind the walls of Sing Sing, three years after Cash’s concert at San Quentin. King himself hadn’t done time, but having grown up in poverty on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, he well understood the conditions that led people to incarceration.
As his keyboardist Ron Levy said after an earlier prison concert in Cook County Jail, “If anybody had the blues, it was those people incarcerated. And BB really felt compassion for those guys.” Likewise, Johnny Cash never did hard time, but his childhood poverty, struggles with addiction, and love for underdogs and outcasts lent him an authenticity inmates recognized immediately.
Other matchups between stars and prison audiences have not only been less authentic, but sometimes downright baffling, as when Bonnie Tyler gave a concert at Long Lartin prison in England …. or so the inmates thought. It turned out Tyler had only used her audience as props for a botched music video that never aired. This, clearly, is how not to run a prison concert, also the title of the Bandsplaining video at the top, which begins with Tyler’s kerfuffle and goes on to examine the genre of prison concerts through prison concert films, TV, and albums.
Johnny Cash, the Grateful Dead, BB King, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, The Cramps, Fugazi, and Fugazi’s previous incarnation, Minor Threat, are all covered here. Missing are artists like Freddy Fender (who did it before Cash), Sonny James, and Big Mama Thornton, who released an album called Jail in 1975, compiled from two different prison performances, and who surely deserves top honors for knowing how to do it right. In prison, writes Music Times, “she finally gets to perform her hit, ‘Ball ‘n’ Chain’ — which was made famous by Janis Joplin and The Holding Company — where it was made to be played: Jail.”