And people won’t be able to shut their ears to our singing.

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I haven’t gotten very far in Exploring Experiences of Advocacy by People with Learning Disabilities: Testimonies of Resistance, (edited by Duncan Mitchell, Rannveig Traustadóttir, Rohhs Chapman, Louise Townson, Nigel Ingham, and Sue Ledger) but I’ve happened upon a very familiar institutional mode of communication and resistance: Singing.

And this is yet another form of self-advocacy that is not as recognized as formal self-advocacy. I’m sure it’s been going on since anyone’s been locked up anywhere. Too often self-advocacy is equated with formal groups, I’ve seen self-advocacy since I’ve seen people struggling for autonomy and a sense of humanity. It’s just… not always as pretty and tidy, I suppose is one way of describing the difference. But there’s nothing at all pretty and tidy about the situations a lot of us find ourselves in.

They have some great institution songs in there. Some generally passed around, some very much based on other songs, some composed in isolation rooms (so we weren’t the only ones who did that…), etc.

This one is to the tune of ‘Clementine’ or ‘Build a Bonfire’:

Come to Barlow
Come to Barlow
We will find it very nice
If it wasn’t for the nurses
We would live in paradise

Build a bonfire
Build a bonfire
Put the nurses at the top
Put the charge hands in the middle
And we’ll burn the bloomin’ lot

The following was written by Doris Thorne while confined to an isolation room for ‘violence’ (she was institutionalized for thirty years):

At one o’clock in the morning
I was dancing on the floor
Singing ‘Mummy, Daddy, take me home
From this convalescent home!
I’ve been here for a year or two
Now I want to be with you’
Goodbye all the nurses!
Goodbye all the nurses!
Goodbye all the nurses!
And jolly good riddance to you!

It’s really hard to describe how doing things like that are vital in places like that. The penalties for singing things like that can be pretty severe. But people found ways to do it, out loud or in our heads, because that’s what people did, that’s one way people resisted captivity.

So I’m very happy to see that someone is collecting these songs, but sad to see that one person who knew most of the songs for one institution has died. These are songs that need to be collected. I’ve heard a lot of variants on them myself. They’re important.

And I remember Birger Sellin’s words “…A song for mute autistics to sing in institutions and madhouses. Nails in forked branches are the instruments. I am singing the song from deep down in hell I am calling. Out to all the silent people of the world. Make this song your song. Thaw out the icy walls. Make sure you aren’t thrown out. We will be a new generation of mute people. A whole crowd of us singing new songs. Songs such as speaking people have never heard. […] And people won’t be able to shut their ears to our singing…” (from I don’t want to be inside me anymore)

One of the institution songs I wrote (I think the tune is a pop tune or something, but I don’t remember what song it comes from), directed, of course, at staff, who did not like our singing (no matter what we sang). There are a lot of possible verses (I end up with a few different ones every time it composes itself), but these are the ones I remember:

You cannot hear this song
You think you know
But you are wrong
This song is under every song we sing

It bugs you and you don’t know why
It nags and nags
And so you try
To shut us up, but you can’t do a thing

We sing about your worst of fears
You shut one down
The next appears
You run and run but you can never hide

One day, we’ll destroy this place
And it will go
Without a trace
Demolished by the knowledge here inside

You cannot hear this song
You think you know
But you are wrong
This song is under every song we sing

It bugs you and you don’t know why
It nags and nags
And so you try
To shut us up, but you can’t do a thing

And people won’t be able to shut their ears to our singing.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Sweet Perdition » Blog Archive » Happy Autistic Pride Day

  2. I feel like commenting on several days of blog – and will mention the broadcast, hooray!! and also the assisted communication page, hooray!! – but mainly this about singing really got to me, and I love your verses (wish I knew the tune).
    I thought you might not know the Walls of Red Wing by Bob Dylan? all about (young people) being incarcerated – I remember hearing him sing it several decades ago, and weeping throughout (more often I weep for joy, but for this that doesn’t happen till the last verse):

    Oh, the age of the inmates
    I remember quite freely:
    No younger than twelve,
    No older ‘n seventeen.
    Thrown in like bandits
    And cast off like criminals,
    Inside the walls,
    The walls of Red Wing.

    From the dirty old mess hall
    You march to the brick wall,
    Too weary to talk
    And too tired to sing.
    Oh, it’s all afternoon
    You remember your home town,
    Inside the walls,
    The walls of Red Wing.

    Oh, the gates are cast iron
    And the walls are barbed wire.
    Stay far from the fence
    With the ‘lectricity sting.
    And it’s keep down your head
    And stay in your number,
    Inside the walls,
    The walls of Red Wing.

    Oh, it’s fare thee well
    To the deep hollow dungeon,
    Farewell to the boardwalk
    That takes you to the screen.
    And farewell to the minutes
    They threaten you with it,
    Inside the walls,
    The walls of Red Wing.

    It’s many a guard
    That stands around smilin’,
    Holdin’ his club
    Like he was a king.
    Hopin’ to get you
    Behind a wood pilin’,
    Inside the walls,
    The walls of Red Wing.

    The night aimed shadows
    Through the crossbar windows,
    And the wind punched hard
    To make the wall-siding sing.
    It’s many a night I pretended to be a-sleepin’,
    Inside the walls,
    The walls of Red Wing.

    As the rain rattled heavy
    On the bunk-house shingles,
    And the sounds in the night,
    They made my ears ring.
    ‘Til the keys of the guards
    Clicked the tune of the morning,
    Inside the walls,
    The walls of Red Wing.

    Oh, some of us’ll end up
    In St. Cloud Prison,
    And some of us’ll wind up
    To be lawyers and things,
    And some of us’ll stand up
    To meet you on your crossroads,
    From inside the walls,
    The walls of Red Wing.

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