Guest Lecture on Prison Music with Prof. Ben Harbert (Georgetown University)

Prof. Ben Harbert from the Department of Performing Arts, Georgetown University (Washington DC), will present his research on music in Louisiana prisons on August 24, and participate in a free film-screening and public Q&A on August 21. 

Prof. Ben Harbert

Lecture by Prof. ben Harbert: 

Musical Vestiges of Prison Reform at Louisiana State Penitentiary


Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is simultaneously one of the most notorious and most musical prisons. The prison’s roster of musicians includes Leadbelly and Robert Pete Williams, well-known blues musicians who worked with folklorists John Lomax and Harry Oster respectfully. As a result of folkloric collection in prisons, blues and chain-gang songs represent the voice of the American prisoner. There is, however, a more diverse musical tradition of music tied to the ways that imprisonment changed through the twentieth century.

The prison newsmagazine, local newspapers, and interviews with prisoners and staff alike show that jazz was the most active and popular musical practice through the 1960s. Small combos toured the dilapidated prison camps on prison farm playing current arrangements and original songs. Musicians worked the fields as they silently rehearsed Coltrane’s harmonic innovations. Bands toured outside the prison—the administration showcasing aural results prison reform. Angola’s prison drew heavily upon professional black musicians from New Orleans. These musicians capitalized on the new institutions that arose from 1950s reforms—the education and recreation departments and the prisoner-run Inmate Lending Fund.

This talk describes how the professional and amateur jazz scene was entangled with the administration and contemporary practices of incarceration. It offers new ways of thinking about how creative practices connect to the ever-changing and ever-growing carceral practices in the United States. 



Ben Harbert joined the music faculty at Georgetown University after receiving his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of California, Los Angeles. His current research interests include documentary film, international extreme metal, and music of the Near East. His theoretical approach connects investigations of musical experiences to analyses of musical phenomena. Harbert has been a teaching fellow at University of California, Los Angeles and a lecturer at Pomona College as well as a resident artist at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County. 



Harbert’s guest lecture on 24 August, 13:15-15h will be followed by responses from Prof. Even Ruud  and Prof. Hans Weisethaunet before opening to questions from the floor.


The lecture is preceeded by a free public screening of Harbert’s ethnographic documentary Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana prison musicians. This take place at Eldorado bokhandel at 17-19:30h on Monday 21 August. 



Picture from the fil "Follow me Down"


All are warmly welcome to attend both events. 


Contact Dr Áine Mangaoang for any queries about the events.  




Dr Áine Mangaoang
Published Aug. 15, 2017 11:59 AM - Last modified July 5, 2019 3:49 PM