Pasatiempo - - TERRELL’S TUNE-UP - Steve Ter­rell

A few months be­fore she died, Tas­ma­nian-born coun­try singer Au­drey Auld emailed DJs who play in­de­pen­dent and al­ter­na­tive coun­try mu­sic with in­for­ma­tion on her new al­bum, Hey War­den. It con­tained the fol­low­ing mes­sage for media folks: “My hard truth is that I’m pay­ing huge med­i­cal bills and am un­able to mail out promo copies of the CD. … Thanks for your un­der­stand­ing.” She in­cluded a link to her Drop­box with songs, MP3s, photos, etc.

Huge med­i­cal bills. That was the first time I re­al­ized she’d been ill. Last month Auld died from can­cer in Cal­i­for­nia, where she’d lived for the past year or so. She was fifty-one. Her last al­bum, only eight songs, is one of her best. And I’m not just be­ing sen­ti­men­tal.

Hey War­den is a unique work, one that’s truly wor­thy to re­mem­ber her by.

It’s a prison al­bum. Sev­eral mu­si­cians have recorded al­bums at cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties. The two best known are Johnny Cash — whose At San Quentin and

At Folsom Prison are among his best records — and B.B. King, whose Live in Cook County Jail was my in­tro­duc­tion to the blues­man some 45 years ago.

Auld’s al­bum was recorded in a stu­dio, not a prison. But five of its songs were co-writ­ten by San Quentin in­mates. Af­ter play­ing a show in the prison sev­eral years ago, Auld was inspired to be­gin teach­ing song­writ­ing work­shops for in­mates there. Ac­cord­ing to the press re­lease for Hey War­den, “Par­tic­i­pants would in­clude those who had never writ­ten cre­atively or shared their writ­ing with any­one, to ex­pe­ri­enced mu­si­cians who wrote and played in a band within the prison’s walls. Au­drey would ini­ti­ate the writ­ing ses­sion with a song swap, and then pro­pose an idea or a ti­tle to ex­plore in writ­ing.” Af­ter each ses­sion Auld gath­ered song lyrics from pris­on­ers who of­fered them to her. At home, she’d edit the in­mates’ work and add melodies. The in­mates’ names are on the song­writer cred­its (and I as­sume they get roy­al­ties).

The re­sults are pretty im­pres­sive. The ti­tle song was the first song to come out of the work­shops. “I hadn’t hosted a song­writ­ing work­shop be­fore so I de­cided to give them the first line of each verse over a sim­ple blues struc­ture and see what hap­pened.” Like the best of blues songs, the lyrics use wry hu­mor to cope with grim re­al­i­ties. “Hey hey war­den, can I bor­row the keys?/Open up this old cell­block/Where the screws feed rats their cheese/Then I’ll head down to San An­tone/Eat my Mama’s black-eyed peas.”

There isn’t much hu­mor in “I Am Not What I Have Done.” Ac­com­pa­nied by just an acous­tic guitar, Auld sings the tale of an in­mate who knows he’s done wrong. “Drugs filled the void and crazy filled my head/I lost all my faith, I wanted her dead.” But he still tries to keep some sense of dig­nity. “Now I’m a killer, not a man/I’m a con­vict, not a son/I’m a felon, the bad guy, out­cast/I am not what I have done.”

One of the most gut-wrench­ing tunes is “Poor Joe.” In the press re­lease, Auld wrote that it was inspired by a let­ter from one of her work­shop par­tic­i­pants who was “on the precipice of tak­ing [his] own life.” Poor Joe ap­par­ently had some un­re­al­is­tic fan­tasies about his song­writ­ing teacher. ‘But Joe, I have a hus­band dear/Joe, I am a wife/He’s the one who shares my songs/It’s he who holds me tight.” In the song, Auld en­cour­ages Joe to take his “dark­est pain and turn it into light.”

Another song here is “Bread and Roses.” No, it’s not that great old la­bor song; it’s one Auld wrote her­self, inspired by the Bread and Roses or­ga­ni­za­tion through which she did her prison song­writ­ing classes. She got the idea for the song from the prison’s list of dos and don’ts she re­ceived when she started the pro­gram. These in­cluded a rule that she couldn’t bring any gifts for the in­mates. “If I could bring you any­thing, I’d bring a ban­quet for a king,” she sings. “I’d have made you a cake, but the hack­saw didn’t fit the pan.” She con­cludes, “But all I could bring was my guitar and my songs/Bread and roses for the way­ward/Been hun­gry so long.”

Auld kept bring­ing that gift to the in­mates even as her can­cer ad­vanced. She man­aged to per­form again at San Quentin twice more this year since the al­bum came out, once in March, when she did a show in the prison’s Catholic chapel, play­ing new songs and show­ing the video for “I Am Not What I Have Done” for a small au­di­ence; then in April, when she did a con­cert in the prison yard along with other per­form­ers for San Quentin’s an­nual Day of Peace cel­e­bra­tion.

With this al­bum, all her fans can share her gift. If you ask me, Au­drey Auld was a Tas­ma­nian an­gel. For more on Auld, visit www.au­dreyauld.com.

Au­drey Auld’s Hey War­den is a prison al­bum.

Five of its songs were co-writ­ten by San Quentin in­mates.

Au­drey Auld at San Quentin

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