Blues Behind Bars writes songs with, for inmates
By Steve Graham
David Michael Boyd regularly performs for a literally captive audience.
“They really are attentive to the content of the songs,” he said of playing for inmates at the Larimer County Jail. “I have the feeling that it actually matters to somebody and that the content of the songs can actually bring hope and bring encouragement and help them think about their future and make different choices.”
The inmates are enthralled partly because they wrote many of the songs.
Boyd is a former pastor who runs songwriting workshops at the jail in Fort Collins and the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. He has helped inmates craft more than 80 original blues songs.
The songs are therapeutic for those “on the inside,” and educational for those “on the outside.”
“Prison is a dehumanizing environment and any kind of creativity emphasizes our humanity, our personhood and our value as an individual,” Boyd said. “Everybody’s story is significant and probably could be helpful to another person out there.”
His band, Davey and the Blu Dog, performs the songs both inside the corrections facilities and at public shows as part of the Blues Behind Bars project.
The organization has attracted the attention and backing of the Bohemian Foundation and the Music District.
“I think their take on it has to do with music and the arts serving marginalized populations and the social justice dynamic,” Boyd said.
About 10 years ago, a Sterling prison chaplain heard Boyd’s band perform, and the chaplain thought Boyd could find a new audience.
“He invited us to come out and play the prison,” Boyd said. The band played for about 140 male inmates.
“By the time we were done, they were jumping, shouting, singing,” he said. “… One guy came and talked to me ‘that was the best Christmas party I’ve had on the inside in 30 years.’”
Boyd was stunned that a man about his age had already spent three decades behind bars, and he realized his blues songs had made a difference to the inmates.
“The whole band was impacted by how appreciative those guys were,” Boyd said.
Blues Behind Bars eventually became an approved program for the Colorado Department of Corrections, and a registered Christian-based non-profit organization. But Boyd said he is not taking his pulpit into the jails.
“It’s not a Bible study, it’s a songwriting workshop. It’s about your lives,” he said. “Those songs do all the preaching we need to do.”
The jail provides some drums, guitars and “a piano that desperately needs to be tuned,” he said.
He can’t take much-recording equipment into the jail, but he has used a small handheld recorder for backing vocals and some other basic tracks. He admits the sound quality is low, but it’s still a chance for inmates to share their work.
“The environment isn’t that great acoustically, but we put some of that stuff out on Soundcloud and I like to tell the inmates that they can tell their friends and family to look there and they can hear something you helped write or sang on,” Boyd said.
And the inmates delve into serious subject matter.
“A woman in Denver came to me and said she wanted to write a song about processing the guilt of taking somebody’s life and I thought, ‘man, now we’re in deep,’” Boyd said.
His workshops are limited to about 12 inmates at a time, and they start with lessons about the cultural and historical significance of blues music. Boyd then encourages inmates to bring their journals or diaries for songwriting prompts, or he just starts a topical discussion.
“I just listen for a phrase here or there and we start working on it,” Boyd said.
Boyd writes most of the music, and the inmates collaborate on the lyrics.
“It’s not a therapy group and I’m not a therapist. I’m a guitar player,” he said.
He also doesn’t confine the music to traditional blues structures.
“We’ve written blues with a rap breakdown, blues with some Spanish in it and some songs that become kind of a country song,” Boyd said.
He has played occasional public gigs with inmates who are on work release or in a halfway house, and he said it is uplifting for them.
“Other ex-inmates came to the show, and they were able to see each other and say ‘Hey man, you look great not wearing orange,’” Boyd said.
Boyd is working on expanding the songwriting workshops to combat veterans. He said he was profoundly affected by an inmate’s war story.
“He had to take the life of a 12-year-old in self-defense and he could never process that,” Boyd said. “Every time he would sleep he would dream about these situations he had been in. He turned to meth and lost everything, became homeless and ended up in jail. Even from that little of his story I wrote a song,”
Boyd is a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran but never experienced combat.
“I was never deployed except to California, so if I have PTSD, it’s from driving in L.A., which will do it,” he laughed.
The next Davey and the Blue Dog show is at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 29, at Liberty Park in Ault. The show, sponsored by the Living Hope Community Church, includes free barbecue and fireworks. The group will also play at 7 p.m. Aug. 31 in Old Town Square.