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Prison Music Subject of GU Professor’s Documentary

Prison Bars

Ben Harbert's documentary, Follow Me Down:The New Work of Louisiana Prison Songs, focuses on the role of music in three Louisiana prisons, where the music professor says many American folks songs have been born.

August 10, 2011 – Ben Harbert, a scholar of the relationship between music and culture, hopes to capture the “serious, sad and politically frustrating stories” of today’s prison inmates in a documentary set for completion this fall.

The documentary, Follow Me Down: The New Work of Louisiana Prison Songs, focuses on the role of music in three Louisiana prisons, where the music professor says many American folk songs have been born.

Ben Harbert

Music professor Ben Harbert's documentary on music influenced by prison takes a look at inmates at three Louisiana prisons and their experiences with music.

Folk and Blues

Renowned folk and blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, for example, served time at Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Penitentiary and cataloged numerous recordings during the 1940s, including “Goodnight Irene.”

“For about 100 years, American folklorists have been interested in music in prisons, so it’s not as obscure as you might think,” Harbert said. “Prison has such a mysterious, dangerous allure to it.”

The professor has spoken with current inmates for the documentary about life behind bars, their experiences with music and what it means for the two worlds to collide.

Diverse Mix

He also learned that people have many reasons for listening to music after they’ve been incarcerated – he says it creates nostalgia, an escape and transcendence that allows an alternative to being just an “inmate.”

The prisoners he interviewed listen to a wide range of musical genres.

“[In the film] there is a fair amount of gospel, jazz, rap, heavy metal, country and R&B,” the professor said. “I chose the musicians based on who they were as people rather than trying to offer a microcosm of the genre typology and still ended up with a diverse representation.”

For Harbert, the prison project might always be the best representation of his goal to understand humanity through its own notes and lyrics.

“Through the prisons I reached out to another world, another place, another circumstance,” he said. “I learned more about music by going to those places – those radically different worlds – than I would have if I had just talked to people who thought just like I did.”

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