Paul Charman: In praise of prison songs

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Paul Charman extolls the music of losers.
Paul Charman: "I want to say how much I love a good prison song."
Paul Charman: "I want to say how much I love a good prison song."

I want to say how much I love a good prison song, a musical genre I've studied intensely from a young age.

But before extolling them, I must provide context - which is radio broadcasting as it was in 60s/70s provincial New Zealand.

Oh boy, that's both when and where you heard some great prison songs!

There was an enviable certainty to weekends back then:

In my town, New Plymouth, you mowed the lawns, supported either Tukapa or Star rugby clubs and tuned into Saturday morning requests, on Radio 2XP (later 2ZP).

Every town had a high-end radio station like this.

The old New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) enjoyed a lucrative monopoly of the airwaves.

It enabled a squadron of well-trained staff at each provincial station.

As I recall it, 2XP had four or five announcers and two-plus journalists, and they combined to create a torrent of local content.

We also had a shopping reporter called "Lucette", a phalanx of technicians and advertising reps, record librarians, programmers, and - from memory - even a mechanic to keep the station's car fleet going.

They ran a more community-centred local broadcasting service than anything you could dream of today.

Locally made radio magazine programmes, such as "Bell Block Billboard" featured individual suburbs of New Plymouth and locally produced documentaries, such as a weekly blues music one called "Blues-Ology".

There were kids' programmes, church programmes, local fishing programmes, while sports featured all the big codes plus lesser ones like speedway.

Radio 2XP boasted a sizeable recording studio, usually with a grand piano and a drum kit set up in it.

Here all kinds of local musicians - pipe bands, brass bands, classical orchestras to aspiring rockers - got to record, or perform live on the air.

In comparison, today's radio is little more than the "nationally networked wisdom".

It isn't even a shadow of what once existed.

But I only want talk about one of the locally made programmes produced by the large and enthusiastic team working at 2XP:

Those Saturday morning requests . . .

There is a paradox here.

In one sense the musical content was broad, with the Beatles played alongside children's songs and a myriad of Kiwi artists, like Wayne Mason's Nature, and Blerta belting out, Dance all around the World ...

But in another sense the content was highly limited.

Up to about half of the Saturday requests were standards, songs which just got played over-and-over.

It was as if, "the whole earth had one language, and the same words".

And we all knew these 100 or so standards, and kept requesting them.

In New Plymouth, they included, Love in the Fowl House, The Gumboot Tango and an Australian country classic called, Birthday Wishes . . .

But I swear, about 25 per cent of the repetitively requested content, consisted of prison songs!

Every successful artist seemed to have at least one of these in their repertoire, with the result that I feel as if I've shared prison cells with Tom Jones, Val Doonican, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Cash and many others.

Tom described "a guard and a sad old padre", as he trudged "on and on at daybreak" to the electric chair.

Remember that one?

Val opined: "I've got one year left to serve and when my time is done/ I'll walk tall and straight and make ma proud to call me son".

And, ah Johnny Cash, well . . .

He almost hypnotises us with that guitar riff and the line:

"I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die/When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry."

You know these songs as well as I; there's little need to list more lyrics in the era of YouTube.

I suppose it's strange that the "there but for the grace of God, go you or I" sentiment had such appeal.

I mean, we didn't have songs lamenting the plight of, say, terminal cancer sufferers, did we?

So yes, I can see some merit in criticising the genre, but it doesn't stop me from taking possibly morbid pleasure in a good prison song.

My favourite was and is a humorous one, most recently performed by a fictitious band called, The Soggy Bottom Boys, who do a stunning version of, In The Jailhouse Now.

The trick of all these songs is to take us right inside the cells.

We become an observer and companion of the hapless and conscience-stricken inmate.
Call it cheesy, naive or unrealistic if you like.

At least such ballads cultivated a semblance of humanity, some kind of compassion.
The notion that redemption may perhaps be possible one day ...

Such sentiments seem in short supply today; the popular culture is fixated with the lives of successful people, seldom losers.

But the trouble with songs/films/TV programmes portraying nothing but the rich and famous is that they fail to describe life as it is for most of us.

Or, to put it another way, let the family without at least one loser in it, take a massive step forward.

Let's see what you look like, and how you achieved this wonderful state of affairs.

- NZ Herald

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