In and out of locked doors
Same old song and dance
This time has to be different
Ain’t gonna be another chance.
– Excerpt from the song, “Eddie’s Choice,” composed during a Lost Voices session at the WJ Maxey Boys Training School.
Right now there are more than 100,000 young American boys and girls in what is called “Residential Placement.” These kids have been convicted of crimes, some of them violent. In their vocabulary, they are not in any sort of “placement.” They are “Locked Up.”
Lost Voices is a group of Michigan folk and blues musicians who have joined forces to reach out to kids like this. Founded in 2007 by author, award-winning humorist and folk musician Mike Ball, they are on a mission to bring creativity, self respect and personal growth to incarcerated and at-risk youth.
“It all started in 2005, when I went to speak at Career Day in a maximum security juvenile detention facility,” said Ball. “I had no idea what to expect. I’m not a social worker – I write jokes and sing songs for a living. Just going into this place was a kind of surreal experience, with remotely operated security doors and cameras everywhere.
“Then I saw the kids walking down the hall, wearing yellow t-shirts and khaki pants. Each one had a sort of locator device riveted around his wrist like a bulky faceless wrist watch. They were arranged by height and walking, silently, with their arms folded across their chests. A “Staff” person armed with a giant radio clipped to his belt walked with them like a drill sergeant. The sight was unnerving.
“But what was really striking about this scene was that they were also children, not so different from my own son, or from the kids in my teen creative writing groups.”
Ball went on to establish a creative writing program at that facility, the WJ Maxey Boys Training School in Whitmore Lake. With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts through the Michigan Humanities Council and the Northfield Township Area Library, he produced a fifteen-minute mini-documentary, called Young Poet Incarcerated, profiling one of the young writers in this group using just his poetry. You can view this film here.
While Ball was still putting the finishing touches on the film, a representative from the Michigan Humanities Council contacted him and offered to fund further work with the incarcerated youth. “This never happens,” said Ball. “The grantor actually wrote the grant for me! I think they were as moved as I was by the story of these incarcerated kids, and the connection I had been able to forge with them. Since the beginning, I had been struck by the musicality of the poetry the kids came up with, so in my mind the natural next step in the process was to help these kids translate that poetry into songs.”
Ball dug into the Humanities Council’s Touring Artist Directory and found that one of his early folk music idols, Josh White, Jr. lived in Michigan. He also ran across Kitty Donohoe, an Emmy Award-winning singer/songwriter, and Reverend Robert Jones, a nationally respected country blues artist. He contacted White, Donohoe, and Jones, they grabbed their guitars, and they set off on a creative journey that was to change the lives of everyone involved.
“At first I had my doubts,” said White. “Kids like these, a lot of them from the inner city, are not what you would call an ideal audience for folk music. Mike had a vision, though, and he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, so we went for it.”
A Lost Voices program has three main components. First, the artists perform a one-hour concert for all the young people in the institution. This is to acquaint them with the idea of blues and folk music, and with the musicians who will be working with them.
Next, Ball and one of his musician partners conduct a series of songwriting workshops with the kids, during which they work to bring the kids’ poetry to musical life. They also write “group” songs, in which all the participants collaborate to write about a common thought or interest. The song “Eddie’s Choice,” excerpted at the beginning of this story, is a group song in which the boys at Maxey speculate about what might happen to them when they get released.
“Some of the emotions the kids are willing to explore in their songs take a lot of courage,” said Donohoe. “These are young people who, for whatever reason, can’t be at home, and their lives are not easy. Sometimes they are just struggling to make sense of it all, and they can do that through this music.”
At the end of the program, the kids take to the stage, supported by Ball, Donohoe, White and other professional musicians, where they perform their work for peers, teachers, staff, and family. The results, according to everyone who has ever witnessed one of these performances, are astounding. “After one of these concerts,” said Ball, “a gentleman walked up to me and told me that he was a psychologist working at the facility. ‘I’ve been working with that kid over there for more than two years,’ he told me, pointing at one of our kids. ‘That young man showed me more in three minutes on your stage than he has in all that time in my office.’ He shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you!’”
Besides the Maxey facility, Ball and his team have worked with kids at the Adrian Girls Training School, the Calhoun County Juvenile Home, the Starr Commonwealth School for Boys, Project COPE, the Renaissance Alternative School in Howell, MI, and Oakland Children’s Village. In addition, Ball has presented the Lost Voices program to juvenile justice professional conferences in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
Faced with a dramatic national shortage of funding for programs like these to help youth at risk, the Lost Voices team is constantly working to raise the cash necessary to reach out to these troubled young people. Each year they put on fundraising concerts featuring, besides Ball, White, Donohoe, and Jones, Grammy Award-winning harmonica virtuoso Peter Madcat Ruth; internationally acclaimed Ann Arbor folk duo Mustard’s Retreat; award-winning singer/songwriter Jen Cass; former Silver Bullet Band drummer Charlie Allen Martin; radio host and stellar folk performer Matt Watroba; classic rock-and-roll band Salem Witchcraft; Annie & Rod Capps; Shari Kane & Dave Steele; bluegrass prodigies Cats & The Fiddler, and many other fine performers. “I’ll even do tip jar gigs to get us out and working with the kids,” said Ball.