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Behind Bars

ane leadFilmmaker depicts how music shapes the lives of the incarcerated

Any opening night jitters that Benjamin Harbert may feel at the Santa Cruz debut of his documentary on Louisiana prison music, will be tempered by one crucial fact: The film has already received a thumb’s up from its potentially harshest critics: the prisoners themselves.


"It was great—they were riveted,” says Harbert. “And not just because they were seeing themselves, but what made me feel I did my job was they all felt I had represented their lives in a true manner."

Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians screens Friday, Jan. 11 at The Rio Theatre. The event doubles as a fundraiser for the Prison Arts Project run by the Santa Cruz-based William James Association.

Praise from the inmates was important to Harbert, since he wanted to portray them without any preconceived notions. "I didn't want to use them as puppets to tell some story of my own," he says.

Harbert was revising songbooks for the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago when he first got the germ of the idea for his film. He was looking for stories to go along with the songs to give them more meaning.

“What surprised me is that so many of our American folk songs come from prison,” says Harbert. “A lot of the songs that we think of—‘Midnight Special,’ ‘Goodnight Irene,’ ‘Black Betty’—come from prisons in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.”

In 2003, Harbert was a graduate student of ethnomusicology at UCLA. He had read articles about increased incarceration rates and became curious about what kind of music prisoners might be playing.

Harbert eventually got in touch with Santa Cruz resident Jack Bowers and the William James Association. Bowers is a musician who moved to Santa Cruz in the early ’70s. He played with the local band Oganookie and performed with Jill Croston, who later changed her stage name to Lacy J. Dalton. Bowers also ran an Arts in Corrections program at Soledad Prison for 23 years. Harbert ended up writing his master’s degree thesis on the Arts in Corrections programs at the Soledad and San Luis Obispo prisons.

This was right around the time when state money for the Arts in Corrections program dried up and the William James Association lost its state funding. Because the prison system’s research department was cut, Harbert found that it was easier for him to do a film than it was to conduct research. So he decided to make a short film about the prison in San Luis Obispo, and it was during that process that his passion for the medium grew. 

“I became interested in critical filmmaking and the tradition of using film to show and to evoke and to challenge, rather than just tell or convey information,” says Harbert. “At that point I'm hooked—I saw the potential of film, the promise of the arts, and the problems of incarceration.”

His focus moved to Louisiana for the filming of Follow Me Down, because of the state’s rich and documented history of prison music.

“I wanted to go back to a place where there had been early field work,” says Harbert, who works as a music professor at Georgetown University. “The earliest visits to prison were in 1933, where (musicologists) John and Alan Lomax … discovered Lead Belly.”

Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, a blues and folk musician who became famous for songs such as “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special,” did time at Louisiana’s Angola Prison.

In the film, Harbert tries to convey the ways that music is important to the incarcerated. He says that it creates a psychological space for the prisoners, separate from the regular prison environment. It also ane musicprovides them with a social space—a different way to interact with other prisoners and guards. Finally, it can provide a sense of privacy and a way to express feelings that otherwise might go unspoken.

Bowers says the screening of the Follow Me Down in Santa Cruz is timely considering the William James Association recently received permission to run a creative arts pilot program in five California prisons, where the effect on prisoner behavior will be measured in a university study. He is optimistic that the results will be successful and that it will be the first step toward eventually reestablishing prison arts programs throughout the state.

"You look at the movie and you get a sense of what prison is like," says Bowers. "Prison is a horrible environment, as harsh an environment as you can be in, and yet people make music there. People do beautiful things—create beauty in their world."


‘Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians’ screens at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. A Q&A with filmmaker Ben Harbert follows. Tickets are $10, and are available at the door or online at followmedownsantacruz.eventbrite.com. For details about the William James Association, visit williamjamesassociation.org.

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