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The Song I Didn’t Play by John Flynn

Recently, I did a concert in a prison where a non-profit that I run called New Beginnings-Next Step has been facilitating weekly peer support groups to help offenders deal with the challenges of incarceration and – eventually – freedom. Our work begins with offenders during incarceration and continues after they’re released, when we also provide them with weekly bus passes and grocery assistance. NB-NS believes that most people don’t change because of ideas; we change because of relationships.

Although I make my living as a singer-songwriter, music doesn’t play much of a part in this work. So, I was grateful to the warden for the chance to do the show.

One offender who came to my performance had told me previously that he had been a guitar player in his youth. He sported the graying beard and longish hair of an old rocker. (I definitely can’t throw stones…) When he approached me before the show, I was undoing the latches on my guitar case. He seemed to grow excited just to be in the presence of the instrument and began to speak animatedly about the time he got the see Willie Nelson’s axe in person, describing the autographs on its face and the famous hole that Willie’s pick had worn there.

As he spoke, I drew my guitar from its case. When he saw my battle-scarred old Martin, bearing its own pick-gouged hole as well as the signatures of folks I’ve strummed with over the years (including Willie), he grew silent. I handed it to him. His eyes darted back and forth as he whispered, “Are you sure?” I wasn’t actually, but at that very moment, something higher than a simple regard for the strictures of the DOC seemed to be moving in me. “Sure.”, I said, “It’s not a holy relic.” With something like reverence, the old rocker extended his right knee, cradling the dreadnought on his thigh. He thumbed a G chord and a broad smile beamed from a face that wasn’t well practiced in that particular expression. I winked at him and intoned in my best baritone... “I hear the train a comin’…”.

The old rocker’s eyes widened. He tentatively ventured another chord to which I responded, “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 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 both the song and the familiar vibration of a good guitar ringing out against his rib cage. The prison walls seemed to melt away as we sang. To prolong the moment, I fished a “harpoon” out of my case and blew a short instrumental before the last verse, where, when I reached the words, “I'd let that lonesome whistle…”, everyone sang, “BLOW MY BLUES AWAY”.

The applause was ecstatic! Someone yelled, “Damn, he really can play! I thought he was always bullsh*tting ”. Mouthing a, “Thank you”, the old rocker handed me back my guitar. As he took his seat, he became the visibly sheepish recipient of vigorous backslapping. The man sitting next to him 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 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; its joyful and ultimately redemptive power stemming, not from me, but from mutuality and relationship. New Beginnings-Next Step works hard to nurture these very things; attempting to create a culture in which a true sense of what Homeboy Industries’ Greg Boyle calls “radical kinship” can flourish. The word “family” is often used by our members to describe our connection to each other, and this feeling of family can allow for powerful seeds of transformation to take root.

The rest of my little concert went great. The audience was 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.

Singer-songwriter John Flynn is the Executive Director of New Beginnings-Next Step. He is the recipient of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers 2019 Humanitarian Award.