Songs, songwriting and problem solving

01 Nov 2021

How do songs and songwriting engage with the problems that punishment causes? 

First and foremost, songs are works of art and creative expression. Even so, it is interesting to think about what songs do in the world as well as about what they mean to their writers and listeners. Songs can do lots of things – and the same song can do different things in different contexts with different audiences. One important thing that Distant Voices songs often do is reveal, explore and address certain kinds of problems that punishment creates. 

Our project’s research associate, Phil Crockett Thomas, led the writing of two recent academic papers that develops these ideas. ‘Mediating Punishment’ reveals how some songs explore and address relational problems that punishment produces. ‘Rewriting Punishment’ reveals how some songs use co-produced narratives (or stories) to address problems created by punishment for their sense of who they are. 

These are lengthy and detailed papers. But in this blog, I’ll try to summarise some of the key ideas in them. 

The papers come from looking back on all the data that we have about the songwriting process involved in Vox sessions (not just the songs, but also conversations with the session participants and facilitators, and researcher field-notes). That has helped us see how the prison (and wider criminal justice) context has shaped the songwriting and how it comes to be reflected in the songs.  

In the two papers and in the summary below, when we explore what we think particular songs are doing in terms of problem solving, we are only offering an interpretation of the songs, seen and heard from our perspectives, and influenced by discussions in our community. We make no claim that these interpretations are the best or only ones; and it is important to acknowledge that they may differ from the co-writers’ own interpretations. 


Mediating Punishment? 

Broken Heart (It feels so new): ‘Barry’ with Graeme 

We discuss this song as an example of a song that addresses relationship breakdown (a common experience for many people, especially in prison). Addressed to Barry’s ex-partner, it helps him to create a coherent narrative (or story) about a complicated and painful situation. It also helps him to express his anguish to those around him (in the session and in prison), perhaps eliciting their empathy and support. Beyond the prison, it might help him seek reconciliation or to console him as he moves on alone. More generally, the song helps the listener to better understand some of the complexities of recovery and reintegration, especially when someone you have loved remains in active addiction. Sometimes leaving prison and sustaining recovery might involve being isolated and lonely.


Running Back: ‘Joe’ with Ross 

Running Back problem-solves by reaching out to the daughter of ‘Joe’, the participant co-writer, and reassuring her of his presence via song. Receiving the demo track of the song on a CD, might allow her to play the song repeatedly, or whenever she wants or needs to hear it. In this way, it sends a message of love in a more controlled and durable way than via a phone call or visit. The song might also help a broader listening public understand how the dividing line between a home and a prison can become blurred for some. For some people in prison, an apology and a promise that things will be better in future might seem necessary for familial re/integration. Many of the songs act as problem-solving devices in being explicitly oriented towards loved ones as an imagined (or real) audience and in expressing and enacting apologies for their absence or for causing pain. Songs that act as apologies also implicitly ask family not to abandon or give up on them.  At the same time, they also suggest that mediating (or re-mediating) these relationships is often complicated and difficult.


Bars and Multi-Coloured Chairs: ‘Kirsty’ with Louis and Phil 

Only a few songs written by participants in prisons explicitly protest against injustices within the criminal justice system. A greater number of the songs include fleeting references to the prison or the wider system, often using the image of a ‘cage’ or ‘jangling keys’ to stand in for their negative perception of imprisonment. It seemed to us that people were often acutely aware of the risks to their progression through the penal system that might be posed by writing a song that might be seen as a complaint about or criticism of the prison. Thus, songs such as Bars and Multi-coloured Chairs draw attention to the ‘pains of imprisonment’, but also try and balance or off-set these criticisms of the system with claims that they’re ‘only joking’ and that ‘it’s not all bad’ in prison. In sustaining this delicate balancing act, this song problem-solves by mediating relationships within the prison between staff and prisoners, but it also seeks a wider public outside the prison for the issues it raises. It is a bittersweet, uplifting and hopeful song, which balances criticism of the criminal justice system and public attitudes about punishment and prisoners with solidarity, compassion and hope.



Overall, in the paper ‘Mediating Punishment’, we argue that songs written in the workshops help us better understand people’s hopes for reintegration and the problems (for reintegration) created or made worse by how punishment excludes, separates and alienates people from one another. The songs try to mediate punishment by making, breaking or remaking connections between people within prisons, between people separated by imprisonment, and between people in prisons and the prison system itself. They are often hopeful songs that point to the possibility – maybe even the ideal — of restored relationships and of homecoming.

For more on How To Do Things With Songs see this blog by Phil.


Rewriting Punishment? 

In this paper, we stress the importance of distinguishing between a song’s writer as a person, the ‘persona’ they might adopt when performing the song, and the song’s ‘protagonist’ as imagined in the mind of the listener; i.e. the character speaking in the song. Sometimes person, persona and protagonist are very closely aligned… but not always! 


This is important because this paper is about how songs engage with and address problems with identity and selfhood linked to being punished (and imprisoned). Criminologists have written a lot these issues lately (in a sub-field called ‘narrative criminology’ which loosely translates as ‘the study of stories of crime, criminality and criminalisation’). In our paper, we make links to other recent papers that discuss how people subject to certain kinds of power (like the power of the criminal justice system) are forced to produce and portray a certain version of themselves in exchange for something that they need (e.g. release from prison, or access to benefits or housing).


The three songs that we discuss in the paper (and more briefly below) illustrate three ways that people in prison respond to having their stories simplified, flattened and distorted by criminal justice. They can be found on this SoundCloud playlist


The Man I Used to Be: Steven with Kris

This is an example of a number of songs that problem-solve by portraying a personal transformation — from a discredited and stigmatised identity to a reformed or recovered one. The narrative of the song takes place in a moment of firm resolution and recovery, with the ‘protagonist’ looking back at the struggles he has faced (personified as his ‘inner demons’). Strikingly, the motivation for facing his problems is given in the first line of the song – so that his children can have a better chance in life. For Steven, ‘The Man I Used to Be’ also acts as a resource for sustaining the changes he has made. It reminds him and others both of what he has been through, and of how he was overcome his ‘demons’. Steven was serving a determinate sentence with automatic release at halfway, so he didn’t need to persuade the authorities of his transformation. Rather, he needed to persuade himself and those that matters to him that he now deserved to belong within his family and his community. 


Leap from the Noise: ‘David’ with Ross

The second song (featured on the Looking at Colours Again EP) is an example of those songs that problem-solve by side-stepping the condition of imprisonment itself, instead exploring the ‘protagonist’s’ thoughts and emotions about some other aspect of life experience. These songs explore and express attitudes rather than telling a story with a beginning, middle and end (like ‘The Man I Used to Be’). For prison-based co-writers, this might work by helping them to imaginatively escape their immediate experience, reconnecting them to experiences that are beyond the reach of the prison and the justice system. In ‘Leap from the Noise’, David reflects on the struggle for tranquillity and why we need tranquillity.  In an indirect way, the song explores and expresses mixed feelings about drug use. Using the metaphors of noise and silence gave David space to explore these issues on his own terms; not within the usually frameworks of addiction and recovery, or offending and desistance.  


Going Coastal: ‘Cacofonix’ with Louis

A much smaller number of songs neither tell a story nor expresses a particular attitude; rather, they problem-solve through fictionalisation and fantasy. Here, songwriters imaginatively move from real experience to invented scenarios, and have fun in devising a story. It is important to remember that some people’s motivation 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. ‘Going Coastal’ is an interesting and playful song about isolation and abandonment. Importantly, it relates a fantasy of romantic heartbreak, something that ‘Cacofonix’ (the prison-based co-writer) has not experienced directly, having been imprisoned from quite a young age. So, he draws in the alienating experience of being isolated through imprisonment to imagine a relationship breakdown. By doing so, he might also find a way to relate to others who have experienced something that he has not, having been deprived of such relationships by long-term imprisonment.  So, although it might be tempting to interpret songs involving fiction and fantasy as a way of avoiding or escaping the realities of imprisonment; actually, these songs often involve an indirect engagement with these realities.



In all three cases, as the title of the paper (‘Rewriting Punishment’) suggests, we show how the prison-based songwriters (and others who wrote similar types of songs) engaged through their songs in ‘re-writing’ their punishment or, perhaps more accurately, in exploring and sometimes challenging the relationships between their selves (who they were) and their punishments (what was being done to them). In the process, they teach us a lot both about the pains and problems that punishment creates, and about the imagination that people can discover through creative collaboration, finding hope and solidarity even in bleak places. 


Summing it all up?

Punishment in general and imprisonment in particular create problems for people, both in their relationships with others, and in the ways they make sense of who they are. The songs co-created in the project explore and address these two sets of problems in a diverse range of ways. In a way – as we have explored creatively in ‘A Giant on the Bridge’ – the songs try to build bridges (or maybe to lay foundations), not just between people who are divided by punishment, but also between a difficult present and a more hopeful future.  If the idea of justice requires people finding a way into right relationships with one another, then both the processes and products of Vox sessions perhaps offer some important insights about both the barriers and the possibilities involved. 



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