Progressive Prison Project
Taking 200 Guitar Lessons in Prison
By Jeff Grant:
“You can do the crime and do the time, but what
you do with the time is the key to success or failure in prison.”
Some of you might know that I play lead guitar in our church’s funk/gospel band, The “Bop”-Tists. I’ve been playing guitar since I was nine years old – but like so many other things in life, I somehow never got around to learning how to play very well. That all changed when I took almost two hundred guitar lessons in prison.
I took my first guitar lesson in 1965, when I was at Lakeside Elementary School in Merrick, Long Island. My guitar teacher, Bill Sheedy, was the coolest guy I’d ever seen – he had a greased back ducktail, a herringbone jacket and Cowboy boots. He looked like Chet Atkins. He was way cooler than my parents or any other adults that I knew. He had a Starburst Fender Stratocaster – and a Fender Blackface Princeton Reverb amp – that he hauled out of the back seat of his Ford Mustang and brought down to our basement for what would be my weekly lesson. He plugged in and I strummed along – barely – on a beginner’s guitar that my parents had rented for me at the Sam Ash music store in Hempstead.
While we were in the middle of what I’m certain was yet another excruciating lesson for Bill Sheedy, the power suddenly went out on his amplifier. Confused, he checked the dials on the amp, then the fuses in the back, and then the light switch on the wall. He went upstairs, and then came back down and announced that the power was out in the whole house. We both went outside into the street and the power was out on the whole block. He asked me if this type of thing happened often? I had no idea – I was nine years old. But I will always remember that I had my first guitar lesson during the great blackout of 1965.
I was incarcerated in 2006 and 2007 at Allenwood Federal LSCI in White Deer, PA, serving a thirteen and a half month sentence for a white-collar crime. I worked every morning cleaning trashcans in the Rec, but I spent most afternoons hanging around the music department trying to learn how to play guitar a little better. Professional musicians ran the music department – they were incarcerated for all sorts of crimes. Steve was a drug smuggler; Jason was a con man; and Vladimir the Russian was some kind of computer hacker. But these guys could really rock! Here’s one thing I learned about being in prison: you can do the crime and do the time, but what you do with the time is the key to success or failure in prison. I took over 200 guitar lessons while I in prison. I was introduced to music theory, and forms of music I’d never heard before – or even considered. Most importantly, I learned that my joy was proportional to my knowledge and ability. My heart swelled each time I walked in the door for another music lesson.
I got good enough on guitar to put in for a work transfer from trash detail – and for the balance of my bid I taught beginner’s guitar to the Spanish-speaking inmates. I spoke no Spanish but it was hardly an obstacle – we used music as our common language. Some of the richest experiences of my time in prison were times I spent with these Spanish guys, laughing at one another as they tried to speak English and I tried to speak Spanish. The intensity and suffering of prison life were broken by our laughter. These were the seeds of my calling, in ways that were only first starting to be revealed.
The above is an excerpt from Jeff Grant’s book, The Art of Surviving Prison, due out winter 2013.
Earlier this year, Pastor Scott told me that he wanted to start a new church band for The First Baptist Church of Bridgeport – one with a distinct Afro-Caribbean funk/gospel feel. He wanted it to be fun, and exciting, and full of the Spirit. This is one of the things I love about Pastor Scott. Pastor Scott told me that he had made arrangements with our sister church, Living Word Ministries, for its wonderful band to be available to us. The Spirit was truly present when The First Baptist Church of Bridgeport and Living Word Ministries formed our band, The “Bop”-Tists – it was magic! We have band members from such far away places as Haiti and Africa, and from nearby places like Bridgeport and Greenwich too.
I know that all of the members of The “Bop”-Tists feel blessed to be in this band – and grateful and humbled to have gone through our respective journeys to be able to worship God together each Sunday.
There are links to four YouTube Videos of The “Bop”-Tists on the right column of the Progressive Prison Project blog: progressiveprisonproject.blogspot.com.
Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div
Director, Progressive Prison Project/
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Director of Prison Ministries
First Baptist Church of Bridgeport
126 Washington Avenue, 1st Fl.
Bridgeport, Connecticut 06604