The Does and Don’ts of Putting on a Prison Concert: Johnny Cash, BB King, the Grateful Dead, Bonnie Tyler & The Cramps

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Cramps Leg­endary Con­cert at a Cal­i­for­nia Psy­chi­atric Hos­pi­tal Gets Revis­it­ed in the New Doc­u­men­tary, We Were There to Be There: Watch It Online

When the Sex Pis­tols Played at the Chelms­ford Top Secu­ri­ty Prison: Hear Vin­tage Tracks from the 1976 Gig

B.B. King Plays Live at Sing Sing Prison in One of His Great­est Per­for­mances (1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Ed Ross says:

    I wish they addressed Metal­li­ca’s Saint Anger video. I nev­er both­ered to read up about it, but it always looked to me that most the pris­on­ers in the audi­ence were bored and con­fused.

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