Featured article: A powerful collaborative autoethnography exploring indigenous knowledge, solitary confinement, and group singing by incarcerated choir member ARhodd & Mary Cohen:
“Finding Mountains with Music: Growth and Spiritual Transcendence in a U.S. Prison” by Anthony Rhodd & Mary L. Cohen in Religions 2022, 13(11), 1012
EVENT – Book Matters, new series featuring books by Iowa scholars and critical thinkers from a range of disciplines, including history, religion, the arts, public policy, the sciences, and much more. Mary Cohen in conversation on “Music Making in U.S. Prisons” (co-authored by Stuart P. Duncan), Stanley Museum of Art, Thursday, February 16, 2023. Event poster PDF
NOTICE – Our choir and songwriting workshop has been on hold since March 3, 2020 due to the Covid19 pandemic and delays in starting volunteer programming in the prison. We have pivoted and completed some choir events with outside singers and formerly incarcerated singers:
- recording of “Rise” in spring 2022 for Songs in the Key of Free
- performance at the Inside Out Reentry Fundraiser on May 21, 2022
- performance of Mary Cohen’s original song “May My Tears Water a Sapling” on April 29, 2022 for the Anne Frank Tree Planting Ceremony
- performance for Peace Pole Dedication in Iowa City September 21, 2021.
- ongoing songwriting collaborations between incarcerated and non-incarcerated songwriters through corrlinks and phone calls
Mary L Cohen & Stuart Paul Duncan’s book, Music-Making in US Prisons: Listening to Incarcerated Voices with Wilfrid Laurier University Press is available. You can order the book through your favorite bookstore. Check out this series of 4 short (15 minute) podcasts with conversations with Mary & Stuart and with Lee Willingham who also has a new edited book (Community Music at the Boundaries) where Mary Cohen has co-authored a book chapter with Oakdale inside singer Richard Winemiller and with Johnathan Kana.
Collaborating with Wilfrid Laurier University Press to publish Music-Making in U.S. Prisons, by Mary L. Cohen, November 16, 2022, Wilfrid Laurier University Press news
*** The Authority File podcast:
#232 (Dec. 8, 2021) – Looking at Community Music: A Fluid Definition
#234 (Dec. 15, 2021) – Looking at Community Music: Music-Making in Prisons
#236 (Dec. 22, 2021) – Looking at Community Music: Activism, Resources, and Current Movements
#238 (Dec. 29, 2021) – Looking at Community Music: Can it Thrive within Higher Education
We encourage you to explore the “Resources” under the Press menu for links to many podcasts, articles, and resources about the Oakdale Choir. We also invite you to visit the “performances” link to hear recordings of some of our past 10 years of concerts. The choir is currently on hold until we have permission to collaborate with incarcerated songwriters and singers, and to go inside the prison to sing together.
On December 4, 2020 we offered “Listening for the Light Within,” a live Listening Exchange virtually. We sang together, listened to recordings, and learned about steps toward Decarceration. – View Zoom recording
The Oakdale Choir Community stands for creating caring communities personally and collectively. We acknowledge the racist and oppressive practices that have been a part of the U.S.’s founding and history, and have been present in music education and music studies in the U.S. We encourage all U.S. citizens learn about this history, listen to each other’s stories, reflect deeply on our own biases and beliefs, and work toward creating healing justice in our individual and collective lives. We encourage all musicians to examine the Alliance for the Transformation of the Musical Academe.
On May 15, 2020, we hosted “Listening for Communities of Caring,” a virtual Listening Exchange with art, writing, and songs from incarcerated singers. Click Virtual Listening Exchange to hear a recording of it.
We hope you are building a community of caring within yourself and among all you encounter. Covid-19 can teach us the power of interconnection. The Oakdale Choir is comprised of men incarcerated in the Oakdale Prison (the Iowa Medical and Classification Center) and people from the community is founded on a concept of interconnection: Ubuntu. Since mid March 2020, we have not met in the prison gym to rehearse. Outside singers rehearsed virtually through the end of the spring 2020 season, we exchanged writing reflections with the inside singers, and a group of University of Iowa Liberal Arts Beyond Bars students completed EDTL 2670: Peacebuilding, Singing, and Writing in a Prison Choir. In the spring 2021 season, a group of University of Iowa students completed this course virtually.
We invite you to reflect upon two lines from a new song, “Blessing for the Oakdale Choir,” by Dorothy Whiston and Mary Cohen:
“May the hope that comes from caring help us to be more daring, as we seek to build up others and we share our lives. . . .May we listen clear and clean with care and curiosity. May we support, inside and out, with ripples of care.”
Outside Singer and graduate of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, Andy Douglas, has published a new book (April 2019) about the Oakdale Choir: REDEMPTION SONGS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A COMMUNITY PRISON CHOIR. [press release]
The South African concept, “Ubuntu,” provides the primary framework for the Oakdale Community Choir. Ubuntu means “a person is a person through other people.” One inside singer expressed this idea in a writing reflection: “Being in prison is especially hard for a lot of people because there is so much negativism. I’ve learned through our few practices and meeting people from the outside world that we are human, and that is a very strong self-esteem builder.”
The goals of the Oakdale Community Choir are to provide choral singing experiences for men (inside singers) in the general population of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (Oakdale Prison) who are not restricted to their units and for women and men (outside singers) in the community who have an interest in learning more about issues in the prison system locally and across the state and nation. Together we have formed a “Community of Caring” that we look to expand in new and creative ways. We have many collaborative aspects of the program such as reflective writing exchanges (see “Newsletters” for excerpts of the writing since we began in 2009), its mutual benefit for both inside and outside singers, the partnership between the University of Iowa and IMCC, our connections with the Iowa Department of Corrections Victim Services and Restorative Justice Programs, and associations with community organizations through our concerts.
At the culmination of the season, the choir performs two themed concerts in the prison gym. One concert is for people incarcerated at IMCC, a second concert is for approved guests. We audio record the second concert and distribute these CDs to approved family members or friends of the inside singers. If you are interested in attending an upcoming concert, contact Mary Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org and request your name to be on the guest list.
The Songwriters’ Workshop at IMCC grew naturally out of the choir’s writing component. Inside singers are quite prolific and we regularly perform original songs at our concerts. We have created over 90 original songs. One audience member shared these reflections: “I have been to prisons in the system hundreds of times as part of my work, and I have to say this is the first time in 35 years I have seen anything in the system that inspired me. I was particularly moved by the decision to sing songs composed by the ‘inside’ members of the choir.”
Past Concert information:
“Remember: Be Love” was the theme of the December 10 & 12, 2019 concerts. The Fall 2019 season’s overall theme was Gratitude and Love. Click the “performances” link for audio files from these performances.
On October 17, 2019 we welcomed 70 music education Ph.D. students and 30 faculty members from across the Big Ten for a special performance, sing-along, and discussion as part of the Big Ten Academic Alliance Music Education Conference hosted by the Music Education Department at the University of Iowa. See this link for more information about the BTAA.
Our Spring 2019 concert themed “Building Bridges to Peace” was a success! We performed for 226 outside guests on Saturday, May 4, 2019. The audio files from this concert are available on the “performances” link.
The Spring 2018 concert was in the Oakdale Prison Gym on Saturday, April 28 at 1:30 PM in the afternoon. The Concert Theme was “Forgiveness, Kindness, Peace, and Gratitude.” We sang five original songs, shared one original poem, and performed two original arrangements including “The Road Less Traveled” from the 2017 BBC Radio 2 award winning folk album Songs of Separation from Scotland. Visit the PERFORMANCE link on this page to listen to audio recordings from the concert. See “performance” link for audio recordings of the past three concerts, as well as “original works” link for 13 of our 131 original songs.
Information about our December 2017 concert:
Thanks for visiting our website! Our December 13, 2017 concert themed “May I See Beauty Too” was a wonderful success. We sang 20 songs including eight original songs plus one inside singer recited a poem “Hope and Light,” collected peanut butter for our local North Liberty and Coralville Food Pantries and cash or check donations to The Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance. We also had a sign-up to donate furniture to the InsideOut Reentry Organization.
The Inside Singers
THE INSIDE SINGERS is a film about the Oakdale Choir, a groundbreaking Inside/Outside choir program in a large medium security prison in Iowa. Kolen learned about it because his mom is one of the outside volunteers.
Check out the film’s first 3 minutes at this link.
Nearly every week since 2009, around 30 inmates (the Inside Singers) and 30 outside volunteers (the Outside Singers) compose original songs, share written reflections, and perform together at the Oakdale Prison for incarcerated audiences and outside guests. The film follows several of the inmates who are in the group.
Dan spent 5 months in 2015 filming, and is in the middle of editing the 80+ hours of footage. Production was bare bones and cost around $1200 out-of- pocket, but after post production, to be seen by a wider audience, it will be more expensive, and will need more outside work. It’s exciting to be at this stage in the process, and there are lots of ways people can get involved in addition to or instead of contributing to post-production efforts. Even watching the 3 minute link helps! Other ways: choose positively-charged, people-centered language: “Support returning citizens,” “People who are in prison,” “People who are healing from crime.” Additionally, consider organizing restorative justice programs in your local work places, schools, and communities.
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