The Song I Didn’t Play
By John Flynn
Last year, I got to perform a special concert in a part of a state prison where the men were kept in “administrative segregation”, which means apart from all the other offenders. Although I normally accompany myself on guitar when I sing, during this particular performance it was actually a song that I didn’t play that seemed to have the biggest impact on all who attended my show.
Since I’ve been a singer-songwriter by trade, most folks, upon hearing about the inordinate amount of time I spend in prisons these days, assume I’m engaged in some kind of creative writing or arts-centered project with inmates. But most of the time I leave my guitar at home. This concert was a rare exception. I was grateful to the warden for the opportunity to provide something different for these men who, for reasons dealing with lengthy, high-profile trials resulting from a prison riot and the killing of a corrections officer here in Delaware in 2017, did not have access to many of the normal therapeutic, educational, or recreational outlets that most offenders enjoy. This was a big deal for my guys. And for me.
Along with my music career, I’m the executive director of New Beginnings-Next Step, Inc. (NBNS), a non-profit that helps incarcerated and returning citizens to successfully transition from prison to freedom. We do this primarily by running weekly peer support groups inside and outside of a growing number of Delaware prisons. Since my early years with New Beginnings (the part of our organization that works within the prison), when I unexpectedly found myself as the program’s sole volunteer, our mission and footprint have expanded significantly, and we are now supported by a growing and passionate cadre of volunteers as well as a diverse and talented board of directors. It’s been a life-changing ride that has gradually caused an aging folksinger to cut back on his touring because he’s found an audience deeply hungry for a different kind of song.
I’d actually been volunteering at the prison for years before anybody on the staff even suspected that I was a musician. Back in 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies asked me to sing the national anthem at one of the National League Championship games held at Citizens Bank Park, and the warden’s secretary happened to see my picture in the local paper the following day. An invitation to perform at the prison ensued and has led to repeated concert appearances for inmates here in Delaware.
As a performer who worked primarily on the national folk circuit, my incarcerated audiences were rarely familiar with me or the kind of music I played. But the fact that my songs attempted to distill the lessons I’d learned in my years of prison work into some relevant and resonant truth seemed to win over even the most skeptical listeners. And — by far — the biggest of these lessons had to do with mutuality. These men were — I’d come to know again and again — just like me.
The biggest misconception many of us have when we start working with the marginalized is that they are different from us in some fundamental way. This difference, we might reason, would help explain their situations. If so, then what is required is to identify the cause of this difference and help “fix” it. This approach initially seemed completely logical to me. Afterall, I wasn’t in prison. Therefore, I must be doing something right; something that the folks who were locked up could learn to do as well. So, the job as I initially understood it was to: Assist someone in identifying some missing component (ie., life skill, emotional management tool, sobriety-maintenance strategy…); Help the individual in question acquire and employ said component(s); And then, stand back and watch the inevitable success that would follow. After all, big jobs need big tool kits, and many of the men I’d meet had never even been exposed — let alone learned — to employ some of the approaches to problems we regularly talked about in New Beginnings.
Knowledge is power. Or at least it can be. So, equipping our guys with new tools as they left prison was very exciting. And, initially, there were lots of enthusiastic and promising starts. Guys were getting jobs, finding places to live, paying off fines, meeting all the requirements of their probation. They were, in short, checking off all the little boxes that represented successful re-entry, accomplishing all the things we’d talked about while they were locked up. But, too often, their early successes were short-lived. At some point something would invariably go wrong.
It seemed that no matter how much our guys prepared themselves for the difficult challenges that we all knew awaited them, life would always intervene in some unexpected way. A loved one would die, a spouse would leave, a job would be lost. One of a thousand different things would seem to come out of nowhere. This created a moment of extreme vulnerability when access to all the shiny new tools acquired in prison — as well as the desire to use them — seemed to vanish entirely. Sometimes this crisis lasted only for the briefest of moments, but often that moment would be all that was required to send the individual back to jail. In that period of unexpected duress, the returning citizen would often default to a kind of “survival” mode and return to old patterns of thinking and behaving. Quite colorfully, our guys compared this often-temporary surrender to coming down with the flu. They called it getting “a case of the f**k its”.
What was required, it seemed, was to find some way of inoculating our guys against this devastating malady. We needed to help them build resilience, enough that a person could be knocked down by life, not just once, but repeatedly (for we all are!) and find a way to keep getting back up and pushing forward. To, in fact, believe there was a reason to keep pushing forward. And back then, that vaccine simply wasn’t something I knew how to provide.
Despite this frustrating and disappointing realization, there’s some truth to the old adage that a big part of success is just “showing up”. Especially when you keep doing it. Although it seemed that much of the information I was trying to impart in prison each week was of limited value, I was gradually beginning to understand that the fact that I was there “imparting away” was critically important. My role as a volunteer created a context that allowed me to develop ongoing relationships with men I would otherwise never know. But these relationships had strict sets of boundaries. Some were set by the prison. Some, by the men themselves.
As a volunteer for the Department of Corrections (DOC), I’m prohibited from any communication with offenders outside my New Beginnings sessions. No personal visits, no phone calls, no letters, no social media contact are allowed. So, the ninety minutes we’d spend together on Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings was it until a few of my guys and I had an idea. Facing re-entry, several offenders asked if we could continue our weekly meetings outside of prison when they got home. This we did. The payoff for this decision was as large as it was unexpected. One of our successful returning citizen members speaks to the power of this new continuity and sense of deep relationship here:
It turned out, apart from their intrinsic value, our new outside support groups for returning citizens were freighted with unanticipated symbolic meaning that soon changed the entire dynamic of our groups inside the prison. The fact that our interest in our guys didn’t merely extend to the end of our cinderblock classroom or surrounding prison walls, that we were willing to be an ongoing part of their lives when they went home, resonated with those still serving their sentences like nothing else ever had. Men who seemed reticent to put their faith in much of anything began to believe in me and (by this time) my other New Beginnings volunteers. The men began to open up and invest more of themselves in our discussions, to make themselves more transparent and more vulnerable. The volunteers, in turn, responded by sharing more deeply from our own life experiences.
For example, one of my new volunteers had lost a son to a drug overdose. I’ll never forget the effect her willingness to share such a deeply personal and painful experience had on all those present in the prison’s multi-purpose room that evening. Nor will I forget the tenderness and profound respect with which our men listened and (in their way) ministered to her. This represented a powerful new kind of mutuality. We weren’t there trying to “fix” them anymore. We were all now partnering in something exciting and fresh. And we were helping each other.
The truth is that we are all missing a piece or two. We have all been, at some level, and at some time, damaged. And, for me, this realization, and resultant toppling of the lofty though invisible pedestal on which I’d unconsciously perched for so long, allowed me to understand and act in new ways. For a performer, of course, this pedestal is called a stage. But more on climbing down from that later…
Yes, the men I met were truly just like me. For a myriad of reasons, they had faced almost unendurable challenges that made my personal struggles seem almost inconsequential, and they bore burdens that I frankly couldn’t imagine carrying, but their hearts and spirits, their capacity for love and goodness, were no different than mine. As I began to see this, the realization changed me profoundly. I continue to go into prison and work with some of those whom our society views as utterly disposable, not to change the ones I meet, but to continue to be changed by them. A willingness to be changed by each person you encounter, to allow yourself to be impacted and affected, has a sometimes slow but always powerful effect on all involved. It engenders trust and builds relationship. Physical presence is essential in this process. Over the years, I’ve encountered the healing effects of presence repeatedly, and not just in prisons.
One dramatic illustration of the power of presence came to me while I was in Oakland, California attending a folk music convention some years back. (If you’ve never been to a folk music convention, simply imagine yourself in an overpriced hotel with 300 banjo players.) During an early afternoon walk a few blocks from my hotel, I encountered a man asking for spare change. I offered to buy him something to eat at a nearby Burger King and, since I hadn’t had lunch, when we went in, I ordered for two. When the younger man whose name was Larry, but who liked to be called “L”, received his tray of cheeseburgers, large fries, and extra-large coffee, I invited him to join me in a booth by the window. We spent a very pleasant half hour together and had a fascinating conversation in which L told me a great deal about his life. When we’d finished our lunch, L thanked me earnestly and, to my surprise, pronounced me the “nicest person” he’d ever met on the streets of Oakland. When I protested that I’d only spent a few dollars on his lunch and that I was certain he’d met many more generous people than I, L responded in a soft voice, “John, I’ve met a lot of people that gave me more money, but I never met anyone who wanted to eat with me.” This simple statement stayed with me and actually inspired a song I’d later write called, “Don’t Just Do Something (Stand There)”. The lyrics are:
Don’t Just Do Something (Stand There)
what we do, ain't it?
quote from renowned sages
© 2014 Flying Stone Music
(John performs “Don’t Just Do Something (Stand There)”:
The word gravity comes from the root “gravitas” which means weightiness. And just as large objects have observable fields that affect each other’s paths, human presence has its own kind of invisible sway, especially in “heavy” situations. Although most of our current NBNS members tend to do very well when they get home (Our recidivism rate is close to 15% compared to the state average of 77%), those in recovery have by far the greatest challenges. In NBNS we’ve had our share of victories, but also our fair share of devastating heartbreaks. Several men I’d grown very close to never seemed to find the peace they sought in this world. And, even for the luckier ones, it can sometimes take more than one agonizing try at a clean and sober path to get it right. One of these men was Michael (not his real name), a man I met when he was locked up who confided in me that his deepest fear was that he would continue to return to, and eventually die in, prison. After making a great start when he came home, Michael overdosed on cocaine that had been laced with fentanyl. After a month in the hospital, he came out of a medically induced coma to find that both of his legs had been amputated above the knee.
Before visiting Michael, I called New Beginnings founder, Franciscan friar, Brother David Schlatter, O.F.M. Brother David had recruited me as volunteer before being transferred to Silver Spring, Maryland where he was to become a chaplain at the Walter Reed Medical Center. Knowing that his new work was now exposing him to the kind of profound injury Michael had experienced, I asked Brother David for advice in order to prepare myself for my hospital visit. After all, what could I do or say that would be of any use in this situation? I knew enough to avoid offering Michael platitudes or clichés but knowing what not to do is seldom enough.
David was simple and straightforward. He told me that when I entered his hospital room, I should be sure to physically position myself as close to Michael’s wounds as possible. “And don’t stand above him”, David warned, “Get down to eye-level.” (Again… mutuality!) David explained that our — often unconscious — impulse is to put as much distance between ourselves and this type of distress as possible. He strenuously warned me against this. “We are called to accompany each other,” he told me, “and sometimes that means walking right up next to the flames.” I did as Brother David advised and, upon entering his room, pulled my chair right up to the middle of Michael’s hospital bed, positioning myself only inches away from his bandages. Although I was mostly at a loss for words (and confessed it) the place where I chose to sit told Michael what he needed to know. Within a short time, he and I were actually finding a way to talk deeply and even — occasionally — laugh together. (We also indulged in some rather profane language as I recall.) I hope and believe my visits with Michael during those early days of his recuperation were, at least in some small way, helpful to him. If they were, it was simple presence, not words, that made them so.
Physical presence requires context. I can say, “I love my neighbor,” but if I rarely see my neighbor, what does this actually mean? Is my compassion just a feeling I try to nurture, or am I called on to seek out regular occasions of contact in which this declaration can be manifested? In other words, can this love be made “real”? New Beginnings-Next Step creates these occasions and these realities.
The New Beginnings part of our work takes place with offenders during incarceration and the Next Step portion commences after offenders are released. Along with the weekly support groups, during the first year out of prison Next Step also provides returning citizens with weekly transitional assistance in the form of bus passes and grocery store gift cards. Most of this has — so far — been paid for through the generous contributions of folks who follow and support my musical endeavors. Upon release from prison, our returning citizens are also given special New Beginnings-Next Step backpacks, a tradition which originated when we realized that many of our members start out deeply housing insecure — couch surfing at best and homeless at worst — and their luggage usually consisted of a plastic trash bag. Our guys always seem so proud to receive these backpacks, and these days, the merchandise table at my concerts always features an open one to receive financial donations.
The transitional assistance we provide plays a huge part in what we do, but our main work is based on the sense of hope we try to instill. As the re-entry portion of our mission evolved, I began to observe that the resilience, which guys once seemed to lack, was now evidencing itself. Our guys were doing better, and for longer and longer periods of time. And I believe this was a direct by-product of this new sense of community. And this hope.
The importance of resilience and its connection to hope were originally articulated for me by Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries out in Los Angeles, and author of the bestseller, Tattoos on the Heart. Homeboy is the largest and most successful gang intervention organization in the world. As Father G puts it, an educated or employed homie might reoffend, but a “healed” homie will not. This healing is slowly born of the tenderness and “radical kinship” that make Homeboy such a special place. I’ve seen the amazing power of these things in Delaware.
Many of the men NBNS works with have experienced the worst things life can throw at a human being. They’ve been physically and emotionally abused. They’ve been beaten, shot, or stabbed. They’ve lost loved ones, overdosed, been locked up — sometimes for decades. Since these men cannot be scared, they’ve long ago grown completely indifferent to threat. But, because it is often something to which they’ve never been exposed, they have almost no immunity to hope. Hope is a tangible thing in NBNS and, once encountered in regular doses, is often a key to a radical reexamination of life’s prior assumptions, choices, and trajectories. This hope is derived from the recognition of the awakened sense of potential and worth that comes from community, from connection, from relationship.
When human beings are willing to forgo snap judgements, and look long and deeply at each other, they come to discover unsuspected beauty and — at least the potential for — true goodness. In my experience, there is almost no exception to this. And, when someone else begins to see goodness and beauty in you, you — sometimes very slowly — begin to recognize it in yourself. The result is a truer understanding of self and self-worth. This process is very much like looking into a new and powerful kind of mirror. And NBNS facilitators are charged with being exactly these kinds of mirrors.
Along with mirroring, New Beginnings-Next Step employs active listening as one of the most basic and powerful expressions of human respect. True respect is in short supply in prison, a place that — by its very nature — deprives the individual of a measure of dignity. Offenders spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to make up for this by fashioning personas that inspire fear. They view respect as a prize in a zero-sum game, where it must be gained at the expense of another. The realization that they can simultaneously receive and bestow this precious commodity through the power of their own attention is often a profoundly empowering revelation.
A newly discovered sense of self-worth and dignity, along with the growing connection to a community of hope, gradually allows NBNS members to examine devastating and often foundational wounds that have often unconsciously influenced the course of their lives. In the protective settings of our groups, these wounds can be carefully revealed, acknowledged, and even sacralized. Spirituality in which all faith traditions are welcomed and honored plays an important part in our work. Finding spiritual meaning and even value in your journey, no matter how unfair, difficult, or painful it has been, can help transcend the ultimately corrosive bonds of mere victimhood. The self-loathing and bitterness that accompanies these wounds often gives way to a realization that an offender’s most painful experiences and secrets, once confronted and shared, lose much of their long-held power. In this way these wounds can often become sources of deep wisdom and profound empathy.
I once wrote a song called “Kintsugi”, about an ancient Japanese art form that repairs broken pottery by using the dust of precious metal in the adhesive. Rather than giving in to the impulse to camouflage a restoration effort by seamlessly reattaching the shards, kintsugi celebrates the brokenness as the repaired item quite literally becomes a work of art. The new piece exposes the fractures and, now veined with silver or gold, transcends its original form becoming something truly unique and exquisite. New Beginnings-Next Step members regularly share from their own pain and brokenness in order to help others. Courage is the artisan and compassion — the precious metal that allows for this living form of kintsugi. And all of this happens within the context of the community, the sense of kinship that NBNS strives to create and embody.
John performs “Kintsugi”:
The prison environment is not always accepting of those who have grown weary of “the game” and its requisite attitudes and postures of menacing indifference. To speak in the general population in an unguarded way about your own deep wounds can open an offender to contempt, derision, or worse. The New Beginnings community provides a safe place and culture within the prison walls for men to explore courageous new ways of understanding, without cynicism, judgment, or exploitation. Even so, this vulnerability comes with some risks.
I’ve seen New Beginnings members take some amazing chances, putting themselves and their closely guarded reputations of street-style toughness at risk in order to help others who were — only days or weeks before — almost total strangers. I’ve seen tears of compassion fall from eyes that have seen too much pain, too much despair, too much hopelessness. I’ve been taught the meaning of the word gratitude by a shy young man who would, within a few weeks, be released and murdered in a drive-by shooting. I’ve offered the eulogy at the casket of another gentle soul who — just months out of prison and proudly wearing the new uniform I’d purchased for him — was gunned down for dice winnings on his way to catch the bus to his second full-time job. I’ve seen a man who was only months from being set free risk serious injury as well as the certainty of being known as a coward (often the most dangerous thing you can be called in prison) by allowing himself to be beaten by two other inmates while offering no physical retaliation. He did this to avoid any potential lengthening of his sentence, which would cause him to break a promise he’d made to his eight-year-old daughter. (He’d told her that he wouldn’t miss another one of her birthday parties, and he didn’t.) I’ve been honored by the trust of men who have known abandonment and betrayal from so early an age that they had learned to try to avert crushing disappointment by deliberately sabotaging any real opportunities for success. And I’ve learned about resiliency from men who have consistently refused to give up on the chances to author wonderful and previously unimagined new chapters of their lives, although almost everyone they’d ever known had already closed the covers on those books. People don’t believe me when I tell them that some of my spiritual advisors are serving time, but it’s true.
How NBNS works is simple. We take turns. We talk to each other. And we listen to each other. No one is the teacher. No one is the student. We’re all just people. Which brings me back to my little concert.
Although I’d done my share of prison concerts in the past, this was the only audience I had ever performed for that had shackles removed from their arms and legs before they entered the venue. There’d been no advance word of the show, so the sight of my guitar case brought a lot of smiles to the men in orange jumpsuits as they filed onto the metal benches in front of me.
One aging offender in attendance had been telling me for months that he’d been a guitar player in his youth. He sported the beard and shaggy hair of a rocker (I can’t throw stones here…) and knew that I earned my living as a musician. He had always seemed to enjoy my stories of the road, especially the ones about working legends like Arlo, Kris, and Willie. The “Old Rocker” approached me as I was undoing the latches of my guitar case.
His eyes lit up as he spoke, and it seemed to me that he was excited just to be in the presence of the instrument itself. He began to speak in an animated, almost breathless way, about a time long ago when he got to see Willie Nelson’s guitar in person, describing the storied autographs on its face and the famous chasm that Willie’s flat pick had worn in its iconic spruce top. The growing excitement with which he recounted this description marked — for me — a big change in this man, who had always been one of the most reticent and standoffish members of our group.
I cracked the lid on my guitar case and, suddenly, the Old Rocker stopped talking. His eyes widened when he saw my battle-scarred old Martin D-28, bearing its own pick-gouged hole, as well as the sharpie-inscribed signatures of folks I’ve performed with over the years — including Willie’s. I drew the guitar from the case and handed it to him. His eyes darted back and forth as he whispered, “Are you sure?” I wasn’t actually because this particular tier operated with enhanced security protocols. But at that very moment, something higher than a simple regard for the strictures of the Department of Corrections seemed to be moving in me. “Sure,” I said. “It’s not a holy relic.” With something akin to reverence, the Old Rocker extended his right knee and cradled my forty-year-old dreadnaught on his thigh. He thumbed a G chord and a broad smile beamed from a face that wasn’t recently practiced in that particular expression. I winked at him and intoned in my best baritone the words ... “I hear the train a comin’”.
The Old Rocker’s eyes widened again. He tentatively ventured another chord. I responded with, “It’s rollin’ round the bend”. At this point I more than half expected a correctional officer to intervene. But they kept their places. (Again, something higher...)
The Old Rocker’s expression turned to unrestrained joy as we launched into an impromptu version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”. Laughter and cheers of recognition erupted from the audience. As I sang the world’s most famous line of iconic badass-ery — “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” — the room exploded in applause.
The Old Rocker was lost in exultation; his eyes closed, his eyebrows arched, savoring the song, the approval of the crowd, the long-missed but oh-so familiar vibration of a good guitar ringing out against his rib cage. The prison walls melted away as he strummed. Soon we were rolling through open country in a fancy dining car as rich folks smoked big cigars. To prolong the feeling of freedom, I fished a harmonica out of my case and blew a short instrumental before finally singing …
if they freed me from this prison
When we reached the words, “I'd let that lonesome whistle…”, everyone — and I mean everyone — in the room sang… “blow my blues away”.
The cheering was ecstatic. More than once I heard someone say, “Damn, he really can play! I thought he was always bullsh*tting ...”. The Old Rocker handed me back my guitar and, although I couldn’t hear his voice over the applause, I clearly saw his mouth say the words “Thank you.” As he took his seat for my concert, he became the notably sheepish recipient of vigorous rounds of backslapping. The man sitting next to him looked at me and laughed, saying, “He’s high right now. I’ve never seen him high before. But he’s definitely high right now.” The Old Rocker must have needed to catch his breath a bit because he grinned at me and, in a voice loud just enough to hear, said the words, “Breathe ... Just … breathe.”
In a very real way, this story embodies what New Beginnings-Next Step is all about. The joyful and, I believe, healing energy of the few short minutes I’ve recounted didn’t come from the performance of yet another painfully earnest folk singer or the (very fine… trust me on this!) songs he’d composed. It came from mutuality and from relationship. It came from stepping down from a pedestal and simply being there. Face to face and at eye level. Nothing else could have had the same redemptive force. The rest of my little concert went great. The men were incredibly enthusiastic. The Old Rocker’s smile never left his face for an instant and every song I sang received his personal standing ovation. But the best song by far was the one I didn’t play.
New Beginnings-Next Step volunteers are the best! Our own Julia Devine (aka “Miss Julie”) went to Puerto Rico with a church group last week to lend a hand with hurricane damage and ended up sticking around to clean up an earthquake site. Rockin’ that hazmat suit, Julie! Stay safe and come back soon!
Our benefit concert was a beautiful night indeed. We were beaming with pride as four of our returning citizens, Sean, Tony, Patrick and Curtis, took the stage and spoke their truth. John shared his music and the mission of New Beginnings - Next Step. Thank you to the men, volunteers, board members and guests who made the night memorable. A special thank you to Ridley High School, Mike I, Katy M for welcoming us with open arms.
On August 5th, NBNS executive director John Flynn was honored by his State
With Deputy Warden Karl Sturgill and Warden Kolawole Akinbayo after John’s concert at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution. (Photo by Correctional Officer Tycolia Robinson)
Concert with John Flynn
News came today that New Beginnings lost another brother to heroin. DJ got his GED in prison. He was the first person in his family to get one. He had really worked hard, and overcome a great deal of self doubt to do this. He was actually so proud of his achievement that upon his release he somehow arranged to remain in Gander Hill an extra day so he could share the news with us at our Thursday night meeting. I’ll never forget the grin on his reddening face as the cheering broke out. We’d seen such a transformation, as his confidence grew and he began to embrace new and previously unimaginable possibilities for his life. Our hearts are truly broken at the news of his death. Brother David once told me that some wounds - some addictions- will only be healed after life on earth and in God’s presence. So for now we must console ourselves that we were present as DJ glimpsed, however briefly, his own beauty and worth. And we must go on with the work of reminding each of our brothers and sisters how precious they are and how desperately we need them to do the things that only they can do in this broken world.