“Winds of Change”
“Im sorry ma’am but you can’t take this into the facility.”
Where am I? I’m not going through airport security I’m attending an concert of the Oakdale Community choir at the Oakdale prison. As a musician I have attended to a lot of concerts but never have I had an experience quit like this one.
The concert began with a statement by the Warden. He explained the missions of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center. Over 500 prisoners pass through the facility in one month. The facility is responsible for processing newly sentenced male and female prisons as well as asses inmates for possible treatment. Every prisoner in the Johnson County Prison System passes through the Oakdale facility at some point or another. The choir is made up of inmates in the General Population. These are men that are at Oakdale for an extended stay. The program featured a few Christmas classics as well as original works composed by the choir members.
After touching and energetic renditions of Beauty Before Me, by Kristopher Erick Lindquist and African Noel, by Andre J. Thomas, the choir performed a premier of two new songs. The lyrics to Sing a Song, and Missing for So Long were composed by Josh, a long time choir member. The lyrics were set to music by both Josh and the choir’s director Dr. Cohen. Before, Sing a Song, Josh came from behind the choir and shared with the audience his inspiration for the song. Josh, as well as many other members of the choir work with Dr. Choen in a song writing workshop. In Josh’s words the song celebrates the choir’s opportunity to “sing together and create together.” “Music is life” Josh explains, and a “song unsung is a life left un-lived.”
Sing a Song was followed by another one of Josh’s works Missing for So long. I could barely hold back tears as Josh shared is inspiration behind the lyrics. He wrote the lyrics with his two son’s in mind. The song channels his feelings of lose,
“my guiding hand cant help you a-long, its been bound and hidden, missing for so long,”
and his regret at not seeing his son’s grow into men,
“I wish I was there to help you when you fal down, Im sorry i wont be there till your a mans, that was not my plan.”
After each song in the program a few of the choir members would address the audience and introduce their guests. They explained how thankful they were that there friends and family members could share this musical experience with them. This is exactly the inspiration for the song Grain of Sand, With music by Dr. Cohen and lyrics by choir member Perry. The work is a musical metaphor for the prison system. The choir imitates the machine that grinds prisoners through the cyclic gears of rehabilitation. They follow the cycle around and around but to no end. But one Grain of Sand, family members and volunteers, can inspire the prisoners to revaluate there lives through love and unyielding support.
The next song on the program was another original work by Perry. The piece was inspired by a writing prompt from Dr. Cohen. If you could say anything to your younger self what would you say? Another member of the Choir came up and explained what he contemplated as part of the prompt. He considered warning himself about a childhood riddled with abuse and disfunction. In the end he decided to tell his younger self to live his life without regrets and to simply be happy. Dear Younger Me features a delightfully optimistic chorus, “Dear Younger me/ I finally made it through as you an see/ so now i’ll pass on back to you, the things I think will will get us through/ ‘cause we only have one chance at life’s dance/ yes, we only have on chance at life’s dance.” After the performance we learned that the song’s composer, Perry, had been transfered two weeks earlier to another facility. Dr. Cohen expressed her regretts that he couldn’t be there for the premier of his works.
The concert ended with an audience/choir sing -a-long. Never have I been more moved by a performance of Feliz Navidid and a Mean One Mr. Grinch. A performance of Auld Lang Syne was sung in remembrance of all the former members who have moved one to other facilities or been released from the system. The theme of the concert was appropriately named “Winds of Change.” This choir has certainly stirred the winds of change for its artists.
The Oackdale Community choir is currently in its third year of performance. Special thanks to Dr. Cohen and University of Iowa student members, Colin Kraemer, Rose Schmidt, and Catherine Wilson for directing and organizing Oakdale Community choir events.