Fifty years ago on Thanksgiving, an extraordinary concert took place at Sing Sing Prison featuring two of America’s greatest musicians, Joan Baez and B.B. King. They performed in the prison chapel before an appreciative crowd of more than a thousand incarcerated men under the watchful eyes dozens of prison guards and officials.
The opening act was a little known group, Voices of East Harlem, who almost stole the show with their spirited performance and a moving rendition of To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Joan Baez’ voice, always magnificent, soared with emotion when she sang Bob Dylan’s classic I Shall Be Released. Her sister Mimi Farina joined her to sing Viva Mi Patria Bolivia that brought cheers from a diverse mix of white, Black and Brown men.
But the event belonged to the incomparable B.B. King who brought his 20-piece band--including his treasured guitar Lucille--through prison security. His solo introduction was powerful and prayerful. In one song, he offered inspiration and compassion; other numbers were raucous and brought wild cheering and laughter. Clearly, King knew his audience and connected with them with what he later recalled as one of his greatest performances.
How do we know this? David Hoffman, a filmmaker living in Ossining at the time, was teaching a filmmaking class at Sing Sing and worked the incarcerated men in his class to produce the concert. In addition, he and his students assembled a 27-member crew to record the concert. The result is more than a concert film. Hoffman and his team present a vivid portrait of life at Sing Sing in what turned out to be a turning point in its history and a new chapter in the history of incarceration in the US—a period of racial mass incarceration. The Sing Sing Prison Museum is now documenting that story as part of a larger interpretive planning initiative.
On November 3, the museum screened David Hoffman’s film, Sing Sing Thanksgiving, for a full house at the Jacob Burns Film Center. As the credits roll with an original song by Joan Baez, I noticed that the name of the prison had changed to the Ossining Correctional Facility. In the 1980s, the name changed again to the Sing Sing Correctional Facility and that name remains today. Whatever name you use, it is still Sing Sing, a place of singular importance in American history.
Brent D. Glass
Sing Sing Prison Museum