Johnny Cash performed at Folsom Prison, Metallica played San Quentin and the Sex Pistols rocked out to boos at Chelmsford Top Security Prison.
Add to that roster Marquise Knox at the Richmond jail.
For the third year, a group of 150 inmates at the Richmond City Justice Center in Virginia — aka the Richmond city jail — will be treated to an hour-long show Friday by a Richmond Folk Festival performer.
“The goal is to provide fun and escape reality behind bars, to give them motivation to get out and stay out and remind them of a different way of life,” says Sarah Huggins Scarbrough, internal program director for the the Richmond Sheriff’s Office. For many inmates, the neighborhood was their world and Richmond’s larger cultural scene is an unknown entity.
Another aim is to show inmates that they can have fun while sober.
“It’s the therapeutic side of music, a way for them to escape being in jail for an hour,” Scarbrough says. “A lot of them say afterward, I forgot I was in jail for a while.”
“Too often, those who’ve been incarcerated return to a community they either don’t recognize or don’t know how to fit into,” Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. says. “Exposure to different things, including culture and music, better prepares them for the transitional issues they’ll face when they leave the Justice Center.”
Selecting someone who not only will hold the inmates’ interest but also motivate them, the Folk Fest programming committee chooses the musician for the performance. This year that’s blues guitarist Marquise Knox, whose first album, “Manchild” — despite being recorded when he was a mere 16 — was nominated for a Blues Music Award for best new artist debut.
Knox has come a long way from playing with his grandfather, grandmother Lillie and great uncle Clifford, who used to gather at his childhood home late at night to play — a memory Knox says is his earliest. Now 25, he tours the country performing on his own.
“They were just trying to keep the tradition of blues alive,” Knox says of years listening to relatives and records to assimilate the conventions of artists such as B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. “The blues talk about the strife in America and that’s part of our culture.”
Part of his goal with this performance is demonstrating that someone cares about them because, Knox says, he’d want someone to care about him if he were incarcerated.
“I just want to give them a little music like B.B. King’s ‘Live in Cook County Jail,’” he says. “I want to make them think about life on the outside. What better place to take the blues than where they got the blues?”