I’ll be performing HERCULES IN HELL tomorrow, Sunday Oct 18 on ZOOM at 5 pm. Meanwhile, here’s a story about this particular story.
Roy Stevens and I arrived at the prison in the late morning. In the warm Central Valley of California, the compound was little more than a group of low cinder block barracks painted yellow, surrounded by two layers of tall fencing topped by razor wire. At the administration building, the Warden met us as we were buzzed through the multiple gates. He told us that he and his wife would attend the performance along with about a hundred male inmates. The guards wore side-arms.
Frankly, I wasn’t worried about the warden’s opinion nearly as much as I was that if the inmates weren’t entertained by my story, one might shove me a shiv on my way out. I felt like Johnny Cash at Folsum Prison, only I wasn’t famous and singing about a Boy Named Sue. Instead, I was telling an hour-long Greek myth, of all things. Roy had set up this show during a tour. Doing his civic duty was part of his wheeling and dealing to get me out to California for a month of shows.
A group of inmates shuffled through a fenced corridor followed by a guard with a .45 in its holster. All were White and Latino men. While Roy and I were setting up the PA system in the prison yard, it dawned on me that on my little flat stage, there would be nothing between me and the inmates during the show. No raised stage. No barriers.
This wasn’t a super-max, but all these guys were being held here for one unseemly reason or another.
The music will work on them, I remember saying to myself. Just get the music going.
As Roy set up the two big speakers and the PA, I broke out my 12-string guitar, tuning it in the hot sun. Inmates emerged from the barracks, slouching against the walls, staying in the shade. They were curious and skeptical. Politely rephrased, who on earth were we?
Roy Stevens, by the way, is a world-class opera singer, who is now the artistic director of Opera Modesto. We’d met at Sailors’ Snug Harbor on Staten Island a few years before, as across New York Harbor, the newly destroyed World Trade Center was belching smoke.
We’d become friends. We still are.
Just get the music going. The score for HERCULES IN HELL is in a modified e flat tuning, an at times brooding, at other times triumphant set of leitmotifs. So, with the PA on loud, I began warming up. No talk, just music. It boomed across the compound and the men started to listen. I could see from their body language that they liked it. After all, Hercules was a great criminal, a violent and injured man. This music conveys that. And an endless, hard journey. And a lot of sad beauty. Here’s a sample:
Well, in the end, the Warden and his wife showed up and the inmates fell under the bardic spell of Hercules’ deep voice. I told the story non-stop for 65 minutes, and then ended the tale. Nobody moved during the show. After the applause, which I couldn’t believe happened, the inmates lined up to get my autograph, which I couldn’t believe was happening either, and man after grizzled man told me how they’d never heard a story like this before, and that it meant a lot to them. Fifty, sixty of them, I recall. I used fifty or sixty very short #2 pencils. Someone had given each man a scrap of paper as well. For the guys who didn’t have paper, I noticed, other guys tore theirs in half.
Amazed at how grateful and civil the men were, I signed the last autograph, somewhat relieved that nobody had stabbed me with his pencil. After shaking hands with the Warden and his wife, Roy and I left.
HERCULES IN HELL: A story about a tough life with redemption at the end.
An Adult Storytelling by Odds Bodkin
Oct. 18, 2020 at 5pm EST on Zoom
If you don’t have Zoom, the download is free!
This Zoom concert is sponsored by Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, MA.