I’m a theater major at Duke University in Durham, NC. I hate frats and sororities but still dig the basketball team. I live off campus. I have insanely phenomenal friendships (still well intact 30 years later). We study hard and party harder. We Think Big Thoughts. We play our music LOUD, and we are going to change the fucking world. There is not a minute wasted in our lives. Not one.
It’s 1981. We are the first to hear and revel in Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, and R.E.M. We are the first to know The Clash. These bands are the soundtrack to my life and, to this day, certain albums can take me to 1981 in a nanosecond.
One was Sandista, The Clash’s follow up to London Calling, and it was all because of the first track, “Magnificent Seven.” Don’t know it? Here you go:
Lotta lyrics in there, no? As Joe Strummer’s last words suggest, “Fuckin’ long, innit?”
It’s 1981. These are the days of big stereo systems. Great components, great speakers. We buy albums, make cassette tapes for our cars, and (if we save our pennies), for our first Sony Walkman.
I buy mine from money made at a summer job, home in Pennsylvania, working for — swear to God — a factory that made Oodles of Noodles. I take cases of the shit back to school with me, and I live on it for months. Ramen noodles are the cheapest satisfying food in the world. I need a Walkman, and ramen noodles make that possible, especially when I get them at a huge discount. (Think about that — they’re still only 20 cents each today, so just imagine how far I could go on that stuff 30 years ago.)
I need that Walkman because, in 1981, “The Magnificent Seven” is my personal theme song, and I can’t move through the world without hearing it in my ears, several times a day, at full volume with fresh batteries. I walk at its tempo. I make a cassette tape with that song looped for a full 30-minute side, just so it will continue to play as I walk to East Campus, get on the campus bus, then make it over to West Campus for my favorite class, Marxist Interpretations of History.
Yep, Marxist Interpretations of History. And no single song defines my youthful rage and indignation more than “The Magnificent Seven.”
Now flash forward.
I’m a musician by night, but I have a full-time day job–no, career–in the field of public health communications. My company, FHI 360, is an international non-profit based in Washington, D.C. I telecommute five days a week. My clients, all domestic, include the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). My expertise? I’m a bad-ass trainer. I’m really quite good.
It’s January, 2013, and my marriage has officially hit a brick wall. Charles leaves on January 27th. In an expression of the Universe’s true synchronicity, just twelve hours later, I get a message from a friend in Nashville: “Hey — this organization is looking for someone to do some work with women inmates in Austin and I thought of you. Interested?”
Yes, I am.
This organization is Jail Guitar Doors. JGD was founded by Billy Bragg in England after the death of Joe Strummer and brought to the U.S. by Wayne Kramer who, coincidentally, was the “Wayne” in The Clash’s song “Jail Guitar Doors.” JGD brings guitars and music teachers to inmates across the country. The goal? Offer another way for inmates to express themselves in a healthy and nonviolent way through music while publicly advocating for prison reform. JGD exists in prisons and jails across the country.
I meet with the great guy who runs the men’s program, Kevin Hoetger. He gives a thumbs up. I undergo an application process with the jail, then a background check, and then an orientation jail rule. I’m ready to start what will be the nation’s first JGD program for women. And this work would become my church.
Everyone needs their own church. For me, it isn’t found anywhere near a cross. I’m a “devout agnostic,” by which I mean that I don’t know what I don’t know, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that.
But for almost two years now, I leave my desk on Fridays at lunchtime to go teach guitar and songwriting to women inmates at the Travis County Correctional Complex here in Austin. This volunteer work is truly my church, the one hour of my week that gives me genuine purpose down to my DNA.
This work challenges all of my assumptions about incarceration and life behind bars. I regularly work with women who are may not have had my education but are far, far wiser than I may ever be. Trust me when I say that most of you do not know the first thing about jail, about inmates, about incarceration, or about human possibility. The last thing most of us consider is what happens to prisoners once they’re behind bars. We should care a lot. Most will renter our world as our neighbors, and it makes sense to give them every possible tool to make a good go of it.
Now it’s March, 2015, and it’s SXSW time in Austin.
Kevin (again, he heads the men’s program) reaches out to ask if I might like to sing a song with his band, English Teeth, at a SXSW showcase to honor JGD. Hell yes, I said. What song, he asked?
“The Magnificent Seven,” of course.
Most men I’ve met would roll their eyes at this suggestion. It’s a surprisingly tough song with a ton of words that don’t always make sense. It’s fast and furious. It’s not particularly melodic. How can a woman do it? It’s “early rap.”*
Kevin just says yes and trusts.
I sing “Magnificent Seven” a hundred times in preparation–in the car, at my desk, in the shower–and each time I am pulled back to the memory of walking to class in 1981. I know those lyrics like I know my name, but I worry that I’ll forget them in front of a crowd. So I make a cheat sheet on my left forearm. It makes complete sense to me but baffles all who looked at it. I think it would make a superb tattoo. And as it happens, once Kevin’s band started, I don’t need it.
It’s March 21st, the rain is intermittent, but the crowd at Lucy’s Fried Chicken in South Austin acts like it’s sunshine falling on them. I nail the song.
I wish that the 54-year old me could go back and tell the 20-year old me that this would be part of her future–not just getting to sing this song for an incredibly appreciative crowd, but that it would be possible because of this strange and beautiful church I’ve come to know.
The parishioners come and go, but the gospel is still the same: say your piece, make your peace, and put it to some chords and a groove.
* The Clash got rap before most Americans did. I saw The Clash in NYC in 1982, and they had Grandmaster Flash open for them. You could see an amazing influence on The Clash by those beats, the DJ’ing, and the rap. It’s really heard in songs like “Magnificent Seven,” and was, at the time, barely understood by the predominantly white audience at that Clash show way back when. More than one person booed. I danced.