How To Do Things With Songs

Phil Crockett Thomas / 18 Jun 2019

In this blogpost, I share a few insights from my analysis of the songs so far produced in song writing sessions as part of the Distant Voices project. I’ve been exploring how we can use these songs – which were largely written in collaboration with serving prisoners – as ways to explore the issue of ‘coming home’ after punishment. The songs are diverse in subject matter and style, they are affecting – sometimes hilarious or heart-breaking – and always interesting. Rather than purely expressing any one of the co-writers thoughts or feelings, the songs are the result of creative conversations and negotiations between us. After all, even when they have only one creator, songs are not made in cultural or social isolation. They are packed with references to other songs, and shared social attitudes and experiences. In brief, songs are socially meaningful, and as such we can use them to try and understand society.

Songs are slippery things to research – for example, they change depending on who’s performing them, whether its live or recorded, and according to who is listening. Songs are powerful conveyers of ideas and emotions, they have the potential to act in the world, and to do things which are often unexpected. As such, I took the approach of thinking about the songs themselves as things that attempt to analyse or solve the problem of ‘coming home’ after punishment. I’d like to suggest that they do this in two key ways: firstly, through exploring and reworking memories and shaping them into a narrative structure that is often oriented towards a different (better) future. Or secondly, some of the songs mediate relations both inside and outside of the prison, which might help people craft a smoother transition home.

Within the class of songs that explore and rework memories through ordering them into a narrative form, I noticed different structures in operation, for example there are:

  • Songs characterised by linear or resolved autobiographical narratives, for example: The Man I used to Be, and I Won’t Follow Him to the Grave. In this type of song experience is often periodised, for example a glorious past, followed by a fall, followed by recovery and redemption. Or a difficult or traumatic past, present suffering and boredom in prison, and future hopes for life after punishment.
  • Songs which create a dynamic narrative by describing an event, experience, or scene. For example: Rendezvous with Warpaint. Some of these songs focus on traumatic or chaotic events, or the experience of imprisonment or home leave as in Two Days. Some, like Midnight Scampi honour happy memories. This type of song is comforting, like a photograph you want to hold on to.
  • Songs which takes a single concept, feeling, or experience and creatively explores it as an image, perhaps via extending a metaphor as in Weather You, where a sea storm becomes a metaphor for the co-writer’s relationship. Arguments and April Showers uses the four seasons to take stock of lost love. Because these songs have less plot to convey, the writing is often more descriptive or poetic, indeed the imagery often drives the action of the song.
  • A small number of the songs tell stories or describe scenes that are explicitly fictional or fantastic. In songs like Halcyon Bay, songwriters imaginatively leap from real experience to invent scenarios, or have fun in devising a story or scene. It is important to point out that some people’s motivations for participating in our workshops is primarily to create or to learn about the craft of songwriting, and not necessarily to work through issues or express something deeply personal – although of course this can be there under the surface, as in the punchy Round Peg in a Square Go.

It is interesting to note that our songs with resolved autobiographical narratives, especially of redemption, have tended to be the focus of those first encountering our project. Possibly because in reflecting on past misdemeanours and emphasising present and future ‘positive change’ such songs probably fit the image of what both prisoners and audiences (including those in the criminal justice system) might expect ‘songs by prisoners’ to sound like. It would be good to understand more about how redemption songs are used by participants, e.g. as a narrative reinforcement, as an immortalisation of a moment when redemption felt certain, or as evidence to aid progress through the prison system?

This question brings us to the second way that songs solve the problem of ‘coming home’ in acting to mediate relationships with people inside or outside the prison. That is not to say that these songs don’t also make sense of experience, or use narrative to do so, but that they are oriented to a specific audience and this influences the song. In terms of ‘coming home’ these songs tend not to depict home as the site of ambiguity or conflict that it is for many people, but instead employ home as a metaphor for stability, love, happiness, and belonging. In many of the songs (positive) ‘home’ is positioned as a binary opposition to (negative) ‘prison’, although we know that prison can become a kind of home or community for some.
I think that these songs are performative – intended to bolster or to encourage the hopeful version of relationships and homecoming into being. Using a musical metaphor, we could think of these types of song as ones that attempt to bring the listener into ‘harmony’ with the songwriters.

Within this category I’ve further divided the songs into:

  • Songs which pose questions to specific people, or through asking hypothetical questions. For example, Bars and Multi-Coloured Chairs asks the public whether prisoners are forgotten by society.
  • Songs which apologise for being absent through the separation of prison, or for causing loved ones pain. Songs that act as apologies also implicitly ask family not to abandon or give up on them. For example: Rewind.
  • Songs which depict or reference a future time after the writer’s release from prison in which situations will be changed for the better. This type of song frames these hopes as reassuring promises to loved ones.
  • Songs which give advice, empathise, or express solidarity with others, whether a specific group or individual. For example, Stepping in to the Light is a song of personal redemption but solidarity with all who struggle with identity. You’re Not Alone was written for our KIN group and others affected by imprisonment. Interestingly, when prison staff take part in songwriting sessions they often make songs that express empathy or give advice. Does their professional role help shape these songs?

There are only a small number of songs which explicitly protest against the criminal justice system or have a social justice theme. Prisoners are often acutely aware of the way in which a song that might be interpreted as a complaint has the potential to cause trouble for them whilst they’re still within the system. Thus, they might try to off-set their criticisms with claims that they’re ‘only joking’ or that ‘it’s not all bad’ in prison. The Queen’s Hotel is a great example of this kind of balancing act.

This post has provided a little glimpse into the analysis of these songs for what they can tell us about ‘coming home’ after punishment. It has described songs as things that act in the world in both to craft different futures, but also in ways that are outside of the control of the songwriters. The songs were created through conversations, and will then hopefully produce more dialogue when they are shared. In this sense, the songs are ‘live’ as long as they are being used or listened to.


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Illustration by Alice Dansey-Wright


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