To The Prisoners: a gift of music
San Quentin, California
The guard overlooked nothing. Not a guitar pick, not a microphone stand. They had already searched Norton Buffalo's umpteen harmonica cases and were inspecting Donald Kinsey's electric guitar, string by string. The press was next: to go through the metal detector.
"Off with your boots and empty your pockets," I was ordered.
I sheepishly fished out my pockets two ballpoint pens, a piece of rose quartz , a yellow comb, a sticky caramel wrap per, 63 cents, and a handful of pistachios.
"Next," barked the attendant. "This isn't an airport lounge."
Indeed. We are not boarding the morning flight to Reno. This was the customary shakedown outside the front gates of San Quentin, oldest, largest, and perhaps most notorious state prison in California. Over the years this yellow and salmon cinder block fortress has been the residence of men like Black Bart, Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan. "Soledad brother" George Jackson was killed here in 1971, apparently while trying to escape. In California, anyone condemned to death comes to San Quentin; it has the only gas chamber in the state.
This was New Year's morning, 1980, and while the rest of the nation tuned in to the Rose Bowl, two dozen of us -- reporters and musicians -- filed into San Quentin for its annual New Year's Day show. I didn't regret missing USC or Ohio State or any of the gardenia floats in Pasadena. This was a concert folks would have paid good money to get into: Eartha Kitt, Maria Muldaur, Norton Buffalo, Donald Kinsey and the Chosen Ones. Most of the musicians had played New Year's Eve concerts in San Francisco the night before. Norton Buffalo had been on his feet for two days. Drained, drowsy, but eager, they were all here as volunteers to perform for free.
"You guys know the no-hostage rule here at Quentin?" one of the guards asked before herding us through the front gate. "During the concert, if you hear a shot or whistle, move quickly toward the stage. And, if you are taken, understand we do not recognize hostages." The photographer next to me chortled nervously.
In the dimly lit north dining room, over 1,000 inmates were gathering, staking out their seats behind black wooden barricades which separated them from the performers and press. Overhead in a caged catwalk, a guard armed with a M- 14, patrolled the restless sea of denim and wool skull caps.
"Holidays are the hardest times in the slammer," said an inmate nicknamed "Seven" who leaned over the barricade. "You always remember how you celebrated on the outside." Eleven years ago Seven got hooked on heroin while serving in Vietnam. He was now in the sixth year of his nine-year sentence for what he termed a "drug war" murder. He expected to be paroled in 1982 or '83."I've been waiting for the '80s to come for a long time."
The red stage curtain parted, and within minutes Norton Buffalo was ricocheting a raucous harmonica solo off the dingy dining room walls. Inmates were drumming out the beat on their knees. They made it clear what they liked and didn't like, cheering and booing with equal enthusiasm. Seven leaned in my direction and whispered, "Yep, the '80s have arrived."
Prison performances are nothing new. Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard broke down those taboos years ago. The unique aspect of the San Quentin concert is that it was not unique.It was just one of some 30 to 40 shows produced monthly by Bread & Roses, a local organization founded to bring free entertainment to prisons, hospitals, convalescent homes, city jails, juvenile homes, mental health centers, children's homes, and drug rehabilitation centers. Simultaneously the Bread & Roses benefit concerts serve to provide entertainers with "a musical family to come home to" after long, lonely months on the road performing.
To foot the bills for annually producing some 400 free concerts in over 60 institutions, each fall Bread & Roses holds a three-day music festival in Berkeley's outdoor Greek Theater. Not only does the festival raise nearly all of the group's expenses for the coming year (this year's annual budget was $108, 000), but has become known in a relatively short time as the best acoustic music festival in the country.
The roster of musicians who donate their time and talent to Bread & Roses festivals reads like a supertars' honor roll: Peter, Paul, and Mary; Pete Seeger; Joan Baez; Graham Nash; David Crosby; Arlo Guthrie; Richie Havens; Boz Scaggs; Carlos Santana; Country Joe McDonald; Maria Muldaur; Joni Mitchell; The Persuasions; Herbie Hancock; Hoyt Axton; Mimi Farina; Kris Kristofferson; Ramblin' Jack Elliott; Dizzie Gillespie; and David Grisman. Each year the festival is broadcast live to prisons throughout California, and last fall National Public Radio carried the concert from coast to coast.
While Bread & Roses focuses its efforts in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, its success has spawned similar groups throughout the country, such as Sunflower in Stockton, California; Goodworks Music in Bridgeton, New Jersey; Comity in San Francisco; Rainbow's end in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Arts for Special Audiences in Keene, New Hampshire; ArtReach in Charleston, South California; and CIA (Community Intertainment Agency) in Portland, Maine.
Bread & Roses is the brainchild of California folksinger and songwriter, Mimi Farina, who also happens to be Joan Baez's sister. The name of the group she borrowed from a line-in a poem written by James Oppenheim in 1912 about a textile strike in Massachusetts, where over 10,000 women and children marched against brutal working conditions, long hours, and pitiful wages: Our lives shall not be sweated From birth until life closes. Hearts starve as well as bodies; Give us bread but give us roses." (Mimi Farina set the entire poem to music, and the song was recorded a few years ago by Judy Collins.)
Farina's idea was for a nonprofit "booking agency" that would bring together performing artists with institutionalized audiences. She hoped to help alleviate the boredom, loneliness, and despair prevalent in the lives of both kinds of "shut-ins." In her eyes, the free performances have become but a stepping-stone toward educating the American public to the problems of institutionalized life.
The goals and philosophy of Bread & Roses are now wide- reaching, yet the group originated from many of Mimi Farina's personal concerns: a deep social conscience rooted in her Quaker upbringing, a disenchantment with the recording industry, what she calls her "on and off" singing career, and perhaps even sibling rivalry with her older sister, Joan.
"Joanie and I are two strongheaded females in the public eye, and, though we're very tight, there is always some jealousy and envy. We still have to keep our distance. I still haven't totally come out of Joanie's shadow. Bread & Roses has certainly helped give me a new sense of identity." Farina told me a few days after the San Quentin concert.
We met at the Bread & Roses offices in downtown Mill Valley, a bucolic redwood canyon community nestled in the lap of Mt. Tamalpais. Mill Valley, where Mimi Farina has lived for the last eight years, has been called the "Scarsdale of the West." Its landscape is Swiss; the climate is Mediterranean; and at lunchtime the streets look like downtown Munich with all the BMWs and Mercedes. It is said that amidst the scenic succession of valleys and affluence in surrounding Marin County lives the second largest (after Los Angeles) resident population of musicians in the nation.
The Bread & Roses headquarters in Mill Valley's Lytton Square is a surprisingly modest second floor walk-up. The staff shares bathroom facilities with an organization across the hall called the Marin Roommate Bureau. On the walls of Mimi Farina's corner office are photographs of her sister Joan, and a poetic tribute from an inmate to the "queen of Bread and Roses."
Farina wore an air of elegant simplicity: navy sailor trousers, a white silk embroidered blouse, a purple peasant scarf with a border of crimson roses, a delicate peacock pendant on a gold chain. Her voice is soft, and one hears a slight Jersey City twang. She is warm and kind, yet on first meeting a bit shy. As we speak she pauses to ponder questions, a carefully choosing her words, as if we were picking out a new song on her guitar. Soon, she is telling amusing stories of her childhood and a fan who signs his letters "Cool Commander of the Unarmed Forces." She can get tough, but she can also giggle like a teen-ager.
Farina believes she inherited her missionary zeal from her grandfathers, both of whom were ministers. "I was raised as a Quaker, and I believe the Quaker saying that there is good in every man. You just got to organize it."
Her father, Albert Baez, a respected physicist at Stanford University, took Mimi to her first anti-nuclear march when she was 12. "While other families would talk about football scores around the dinner table, we always discussed what strontium 90 was and the effects of dropping an atomic bomb," says Farina. "My mother loved classical music, and after dinner we would put on Van Cliburn, and all of us would lie down on the floor and listen. It was quite a bit different from running up to your room and putting on the latest rock 'n' roll."
Mr. Baez worked with Unesco and travelled constantly with his wife and three daughters, Mimi, Joan, and Pauline. (The oldest daughter, Pauline, steered clear of the music profession entirely and is now raising a family in Carmel). In 1963, while attending high school in Paris and studying ballet, Mimi met and married an ambitious young author and poet, Richard Farina.
She was 18 years old, and, as she puts it, the next three years were "like a fairly tale." She and Richard moved to California and lived in a cramped cabin in Carmel. While he finished his novel, she wrote songs. In the evenings they blended their poetry and politics: Mimi on guitar, Richard on dulcimer. The two were asked to play at the first Big Sur Festival in 1964, and on the basis of their performance the Farinnas were offered a contract to record three albums with Vanguard. In 1966, the year his novel "Been Down So Long It Looks Like up to Me" was published, Richard Farina was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Mimi then gave up her music and battled deep deppression. She did a short stint with an improvisational acting troupe, but it was years before she picked up the guitar again. Eventually she cut a record with singer Tom Jans and two year later decided to try solo performance.
Mimi was paying her dues with long road trips, lonely hotel rooms, and the emptiness which many musicians face between performances. Her career seemed to be faltering. One of her cousins, a social worker, suggested she offer to perform in some of the local hospitals. Mimi kicked the thought around for a couple a years.
Finally, when A&M Records classified her as a "marginal act" and backed out on their promise to produce her solo album because of a "vinyl shortage," Mimi made her move. "I got fed up with the commercial music world. It was degrading , and I wanted to be treated like a person, not 'an act.'"
She began dialing hospitals in Marin County and offering her talent. The response was immediate. Donations began to trickle in from performers -- Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Hoyt Axton, Tom Fogarty, and Judy Collins. It was still a shoestring operation, however. In 1974, the year Bread & Roses was founded, a newspaper article said the group needed "a clock, a small couch, a rug, bulletin board, and assorted office supplies."
To this day the group accepts almost any kind of donation, money, or talent. More than 400 professional and amateur performers -- from jugglers to belly dancers, ventriloquists to mimes -- have put on shows for the Bread & Roses cause.
Says Farina: "Everybody gets an equal chance, and no one gets paid." For the first five years of the organization, Farina, its executive director, did not draw a salary.
Perhaps the reward is more roses than bread, says James Scott, one Bread & Roses performer. "Playing for Bread & Roses has been the finest musical experience I've had since coming to the Bay Area . . .. The Bread & Roses audiences are of different background and ages, but they all seem willing to let the music touch them, to give themselves to the performance. I felt that the audience was as close to many of my pieces as I was. Everything I gave to them they gave right back. I felt very good after the show. For Bread & Roses you play for free, but you don't play for nothing."
According to Farina, while prison concerts draw the most publicity, performing in facilities for senior citizens is the most challenging. "Old folks are mistreated so badly. They are drugged with sedatives they don't need, and shoved in front of televisions they don't want to watch. Of course, they are cranky. You would be too, if your family left you alone there. A lot of convalescent homes are run with about as much sensitivity as food chains. The more I see, the more I believe it should not be happening to them."
What keeps Bread & Roses and its performers plugging away?
Often simple thank-you notes like this one: "I'm always listening to my own drum -- however this last time I heard yours. And was filled with the joy of life. Then looked around from time to time at others and saw that I felt a serenity and was glued to my chair, never taking my eyes and ears away for a moment. Thank you Bread & Roses I ate the bread and smelled the roses and I heard you."