The joint was jumping at the county jail: Young@Heart Chorus teams up with inmates for a rockin’ in-house concert

Last modified: Thursday, June 25, 2015
On a mid-morning in late March at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, eight inmates were gathered around an electric keyboard in the visiting room, laughing and talking quietly.

Keyboard player Ken Maiuri hit middle C, and together they warmed up with scales. Up and down, they sang: “la-la-la-la-LA-la-la-la-la,” then one note higher: “mi-mi-mi-mi-MI-mi-mi-mi-mi.” Then one note higher, and higher again.

Up front, next to Maiuri, stood Young@Heart Chorus director Bob Cilman, who sang along as he listened to the group, tracking just how high they could go. Also visiting the prison that day were two regular members of the Young@Heart chorus: 86-year-old Stephen Martin and 79-year-old John Rinehart. They stood among the inmates and sang along.

The group, part of Young@Heart’s new Prison Project, was getting ready to perform a jailhouse concert that eventually took place May 13. On that cool, breezy day, all those weeks of preparation culminated when Y@H visited the jail for the show, setting up in a grassy enclosure in the middle of the complex, where the rooftops of the buildings are edged with barbed wire. Chorus members, flanked by their band, stood facing a crowd of inmates, sitting on the grass; other visitors sat on two short lines of chairs, while prison guards and other personnel stood nearby.

There was a festive air to the scene, barbed wire and guards notwithstanding. Cilman gave a quick introduction, noting that, though Y@H had performed in the jail before, “We wanted to come back and do something a little different.”

The chorus worked its way through a handful of tunes: “Tell It Like It Is” by Aaron Neville, “The Beast in Me” by Nick Lowe, “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones. On the latter song, lead singer Andy Walsh, standing in for Mick Jagger, sparked laughter around the yard when he modified some of the lyrics: “We’re gonna come around at 12 with some Northampton girls that are just dyin’ to meet you!”

Chorus member Anita Shumway moved out at one point and danced on the grass with James Lee Therault, an inmate who was greeted with handshakes and slaps on the back when he rejoined his buddies. Cilman, meanwhile, his body continually moving to the music, kept gesturing to eight inmates, decked out in black shirts that read “Young@Heart: finding the zen in senior citizen,” who stood to the side of the chorus. He was encouraging them to sing along with the group — and then he called them up to the microphones to take the helm.

The whole person

The Prison Project is still in its early stages, but the mission is simple: to cultivate a fun and ongoing relationship between the main group’s seasoned cast of singers and interested members of local prison populations through on-site rehearsals.

Cilman, Maiuri and Mark Guglielmo, Y@H’s director of operations, and a pair of chorus members pulled on rotation have been visiting the jail since October to lead rehearsals for a group of about a dozen inmates from the medium-security and minimum-security wings of the prison. This structured singing time is designed to be a break from the rest of the week’s programming, which features daily group sessions on anger management, substance abuse, accountability, and victim impact, explained the jail’s assistant deputy superintendent, Melinda Cady.

“We ask a great deal of the men here,” Cady said. “In turn, we want to support the whole person. ... The Young@Heart chorus gives these guys an opportunity to see themselves in different roles, as members of something good.”

Not every inmate shows up consistently to rehearsal, which is held weekly on Wednesdays. But over the past several months, something of a community has grown out of the endeavor. The inmates have gotten to know each other better, and they are increasingly less shy about singing. At the rehearsal, they were polishing up a set list for a show that they were to perform at the May concert for the other inmates and a handful of guests.

And they’ve given themselves a name: The Old Souls. It’s a winking reference to their collaboration with Young@Heart, the choral group that Cilman formed in 1982 for members of a Northampton elderly housing project. The chorus is for senior citizens only — the minimum age to join the chorus is 73, and the group’s average age is 82.

Back in 2006, Young@Heart performed a show at the Hampshire County Jail. The inmates’ response to the performance, which forms a pivotal scene in the 2007 Channel 4/Fox Searchlight documentary “Young@Heart,” was enthusiastic.

“That first concert was so eye-opening,” Cilman said. “Over the course of an hour of singing, something powerful happened between us and the inmates. It was such an intense day.”

Since then, Cilman has been mulling over an initiative to sing with, not just for, the prison population.

Express yourself

At the May concert, Cilman stepped to the microphone: “I want to introduce the guys we’ve been working with — The Old Souls,” he said. “They learned some of our songs, and they’ve taught us some of theirs.” As one example, he explained, Y@H had been playing a 1970 soul song, “Express Yourself,” for some time but had since learned, with the help of the inmates, a version of the tune recorded in the late 1980s by the hip-hop group N.W.A.

To the cheers of the crowd, Chris Barre, one of the Old Souls, grabbed a microphone and started rapping the lyrics: “I’m expressin’ with my full capabilities / And now I’m livin’ in correctional facilities / Cause some don’t agree with how I do this / I get straight, meditate like a Buddhist.”

Taking turns as soloists, The Old Souls offered up some newer, slower pop songs: “U Got it Bad” by Usher, “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” by Chris Brown. The voices weren’t always in tune, but they were confident and in time with the band. Stephen Moss, who wore a black, Y@H baseball hat rally-style and flashed an almost continual smile, said afterward that he’d been pretty nervous when he got up in front of the crowd.

“I definitely was, but it all came out OK,” he said. “I think everyone really got into this.”

In fact, Moss and his fellow singers had audience members swaying and tapping their feet when he helped Daniel McNair belt out “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by The Temptations along with Y@H members, who sang backup on the song; on a few other tunes, a Y&H member did lead singing with backup from The Old Souls and the chorus.

Even Robert Garvey, the longtime head of the jail, got into the act, coming up to one of the microphones to sing the old standard “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby)”; he was joined at the end for a bit of harmony by Y@H member Stephen Martin. The inmates gave them a standing ovation.

Garvey has been sheriff here for 31 years. In an interview in March, he recalled that original performance by Young@Heart at the jail in 2006. “We’ve always encouraged Bob to come back and do something else,” he said. “He’s just a super talent, and the inmates really respect what he’s doing.”

When Cilman called up last year to suggest a chorus project at the jail, Garvey said he was a little nervous about the potential lack of interest from inmates. “But I thought the worst thing that could happen is we cancel the program. We certainly wanted to give it every opportunity to succeed. And it has.”

A former Amherst selectman and Hampshire County Commissioner, Garvey said his background in education has motivated him to put a big focus on programming at the facility. Over the years, the jail has sought to balance its criminal education programs with more social, stress-relieving programs, which have included theatre, music, woodworking, mechanics and computer science.

“We’re in the business of dealing with people who have problems, and addressing those problems,” he said. “If we’re going to be successful at all, we have to provide a climate where change can take place.”

Indeed, Y@H members Martin and Rinehart say they hope their participation at the jail will be both fun and inspiring for the inmates.

“They look at us and see how old we are,” Rinehart said. “Our careers are over, but this is a tremendous joy for me. And the prisoners look at us not so much as role models, but just as something they can do later on in life, if they want to pursue the music.”

“We didn’t get to this age without a lot of experiences,” Martin added. “For the love of God, I could be in here and they could be out there. ... It could have been the other way around so many times.”

Empathy and patience — for yourself and for each other — are key, Cilman says. More so than a flawless performance.

“These are not professional singers. But that’s always been the truth of Young@Heart as well. Pitch and rhythm don’t always come first. What matters is honesty — how you’re feeling the song as you sing it,” Cilman said. “Look,” he added, “proper training isn’t the only thing going on when you listen to music. The most brilliantly on-pitch singing voice can put you to sleep in five seconds. So, I’ve always worked with people who aren’t professional singers.”

The inmates don’t seem to have any delusions on this point either.

“When I first started, I was nervous,” said Sherod Green, 22, from New Jersey. “I never really sang. But now I just get up there and do it.”

Green, who is serving a year for a drug violation, says Michael Williams, 21, of Springfield, who is serving a year for receiving stolen property, encouraged him to show up at the first rehearsal.

“He grabbed me one day, like, ‘You ain’t doing nothing. You might as well just come down.’ I didn’t know what to expect at first.” But the energy was positive, he added. “I just vibe with it. And I like it now.”

Williams said he used to rap and sing before he was incarcerated, and that rehearsals have helped him to feel less nervous about performing in public.

“They help us get through it. Like, when I’m shy and don’t want to do a song, they all give me energy. Like, go do it, go do it — we got your back.”

“For me, it’s relieving stress,” Green said. “It’s a stress reliever. And it’s fun.”

Positive change

Such collaborations aren’t new for Young@Heart. Cilman recalls the chorus performing, for example, with a group of break-dancers in the mid-1980s, and with the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus. These incarcerated men have more troubled backstories than those break-dancers, but that doesn’t affect Cilman’s goals.

“I don’t know what anyone has done to get there, and I’m not interested,” he said. “That’s not my business. I just know that these guys are coming back into the community, and I want to see them come back in the best possible way. And in a small way, I think this can be really helpful.”

Even so, Cilman says he resists the notion that swooping in with an agenda brings positive change quickly.

“It sounds like a good idea, right?” he said. “But it only becomes a good idea later, when you do it and you see that it’s worthy of being done. Lots of good ideas don’t work when you try them. But this has passed that threshold. I’m really happy about that.”

At the May 13 concert, members of Y@H and The Old Souls paired up for duets for the show’s finale, Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” After singing the verses — a wish for hope and joy — one by one, there were hugs all around, and a clear sense that this had been a special day.