This work was part of «California Prison Arts Archiving Project» that Ben Harbert led for the UCLA University Archives Summer 2008 to Spring 2010. From the Norient book Out of the Absurdity of Life (see and order here).
My penchant for transcription and formal analysis does not always make for the easiest conversation. Neither does being told about a stranger’s childhood sexual abuse. I am in New Folsom State Prison’s overly organized music room, filled with guitars, drums, and horns locked away in loft cages. A dated poster of Jimi Hendrix graces a cinderblock wall. I’m waiting to ask Bill Martin (not his real name), a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, about «composer’s intent» in relation to a song he wrote. The night before, Jim Carlson, New Folsom’s arts facilitator, had played me a recording of Bill’s song «Little Boy Blue», which introspectively grapples with having been sexually abused as a child. I heard a parallel in the musical structure. […]
Finished collecting materials, I wait to talk to Bill. The last-minute recording session is wrapping up. Inmates in blue prison uniforms wrap cables and pack up instruments. I pull Bill aside to ask him about «Little Boy Blue». I am wary to «perform academia» on his song. I will never forget when an inmate at the California Men’s Colony accused me pointblack: «We’re lab rats to you, right?» putting a finger in the highbrow/lowbrow tension compounded by issues of constant surveillance endemic to prison research. The last thing I want to do is subject Bill to pseudo-psychological analysis in the form of obtuse musicological analysis. I might as well see how he improvises lead guitar licks to Rorschach inkblot cards. I lay out my analysis anyway. Bill lights up and cuts me off. «Exactly. The chords don’t resolve!»
This text has been published first in the Norient book «Out of the Absurdity of Life».