Making music with young prisoners
by Andrew Saunders
According to the most recent report by the state Department of Corrections, 878 juveniles were incarcerated as felons in Michigan in 2011. Some as young as eleven, they are growing up in cell blocks.
In 2006, local humor writer and folk musician Mike Ball joined with folk music legend Josh White Jr. to visit these juvenile felons in prison and collaborate with them to create music. White says their nonprofit, Lost Voices (lostvoices.org), has a transformative effect, turning kids' tendency to fight one another to a new desire to work together.
Lost Voices volunteers take poetry and rhymes that the kids write and set them to music. At a fall fundraiser at WCC, some of their songs were performed by White and a bevy of local artists, including Kitty Donohoe, Peter "Madcat" Ruth, the Rev. Robert Jones, Jen Cass, and Annie and Rod Capps.
The project started when Ball went to the maximum-security W.J. Maxey Boys Training School in Whitmore Lake for career day to talk about being a writer. "When I saw the kids, I realized, 'This is my kid,'" he says. "These are children, no different from my son. These kids are so smart. And they're so sensitive. But they also have this tough shell."
In 2005, Ball did a mini-documentary for PBS, "Young Poet Incarcerated," about one of the inmates at Maxey. Then he and White started making music with the juveniles.
"It's normally mostly their words," says White--though "we may have to change a word here or there."
"It certainly is a deeper well than the happy-happy joy-joy kind of stuff," says Rod Capps. "It can be a song of hope even if it comes from a place of pain and suffering."
[Originally published in January, 2014.]