“I think this work is ’til death do us part.”
– Gail Muhammad, attendee, International Prisoner’s Family Conference 2017
The DIE JIM CROW LP SOUTHERN TRIP was an amazing experience, and it’s with some dismay that I write about it. Why? I wish I was still on it. Every day was a journey, great people I met, and it felt like with each day the Die Jim Crow LP got closer to fruition. I’ll be posting a series of three blogs which showcase the trip, so look out. I’d like to give a salute to all the donors who made the trip happen. Thank you.
The first stop was Baltimore, MD. I got to meet Michael Austin, a singer/songwriter who spent 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He was exonerated by the state of Maryland. We had “the best crab cakes in Maryland” (- Michael) at Koco’s Pub, and then listened to the EP on vinyl back at Michael’s place. During “My Name Be Jim Crow,” Michael took out a melodica he had in prison and began to play along; an old 70s model that he played in the joint. Then we discussed the project over drinks and jambalaya; Michael’s homemade recipe (A+). It seems that a collaboration will happen in the future. Here’s a little phone video I filmed the following morning before heading to Nashville:
I then set out to Nashville TN where I met Misti Bragg early the following morning. Misti Bragg is the daughter of Johnny Bragg, the late lead vocalist of The Prisonaires, a legendary doo wop/blues group that recorded on Sun Records prior to Presley. Johnny Bragg was sentenced to six 99 year sentences for crimes he did not commit (see third paragraph of this article). While in prison, he formed the singing group The Prisonaires, whose first performances “were serenading prisoners before execution. Bragg would stay behind to loosen the straps on the condemned men and clear up the mess.” (quote from above-linked article). The Prisonaires eventually caught the ear of Sam Phillips, who recorded “Just Walkin’ In The Rain” in 1953.
Misti and I met briefly for coffee before she had to take her daughter to soccer practice. It was a nice time, and we agreed to stay in touch and work together in the future. Next time I’m in Nashville we plan on doing an interview and visiting her father’s grave site. It felt great to give Misti a copy of the Die Jim Crow EP, and to, in a sense, have Johnny Bragg’s energy now connected to the project. Upon leaving, Misti gave Sun Studios a call and made sure they gave me a comped ticket for later that day. I headed to Memphis and caught the last tour of Sun Studios, which was an awesome experience. Shout out to Nick the tour guide!
Next stop: Holly Springs, Mississippi. Here I had a somewhat impromptu meeting with David Kimbrough Jr., who I’d found out about unexpectedly days prior. While reading about his father, the legendary blues artist Junior Kimbrough, I stumbled upon David, who’d served about 13 years in Mississippi prisons. We spoke over the phone and I told him about the project; he was interested. I came into town on a Sunday, so we met at his church for service, grabbed lunch, and then spent the day discussing… well, lots of stuff. It was a good meeting, and we agreed to record music next time I’m in town. Kimbrough is a multi-instrumentalist who even plays the dulcimer.
After Holly Springs, I drove into Oxford MS for an important meeting with Anonymous, who runs a creative writing program in multiple Mississippi prisons. I’ve been bugging him for years about meeting in person to discuss recording. Finally, our schedules/geographies aligned, and we met at a coffee shop to discuss the prospect seriously. I left with a good feeling, as Anonymous said it might take a year, but he’s going to fight for Die Jim Crow gaining recording access inside MDOC [Mississippi Dept. of Corrections]. PRAY FOR US.
I finally set off for a week-long stay in Texas, first stop Dallas, for the 2017 International Prisoner’s Family Conference. I’ll close out this Blog post in Dallas, where I met some great people and made solid connections during this three-day event. On Day two, I presented the project to the conference by playing the attendees “Tired & Weary,” track two off the DIE JIM CROW EP; Anthony McKinney’s ballad of an innocent man sentenced to life. The majority of the audience being formerly incarcerated folks or family members of the incarcerated, and everyone in attendance an advocate, you can imagine how positive the reaction to the song was.
I met people from across the country doing this line of work: lawyers, artists, social workers, therapists, parents, teachers. Many of them had done time and are now helping lead the movement. I met people who said they would help me gain access to prisons, so we’ll see about that; though I’m not hedging any bets or saying too much. If I get access, you’ll know. I spoke with people from all over America about Die Jim Crow, and the reception was very positive. Being at the conference was another reminder of how successful and necessary Die Jim Crow is and can be.
To close it off, here’s a video interview I did with Julia Lazareck of Prison: The Hidden Sentence. Julia’s brother was incarcerated for several years, and she found that there was a lack of understanding on how friends and families are impacted when a loved one goes to prison. She is sharing information and raising awareness, one story at a time, at www.prisonthehiddensentence.
[DISCLAIMER: THE AUDIO QUALITY ON THIS VIDEO IS BAD DUE TO A GLITCH WITH RECORDING DEVICE. PLEASE PARDON THE SOUND.]
NEXT UP… a pianist in Dallas, a prison in Gatesville TX, a meeting with the head of media in TDCJ, and much more… Look out for Blog XI!
photos from INTERNATIONAL PRISONER’S FAMILY CONFERENCE 2017