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VDS Feature: Jailbird

Posted by on Wednesday, January 8, 2014 in Feature.

Although I am a published songwriter and music publisher with an SESAC affiliation, eventually the business of music on “Music Row” offered more than I could endure. While I realize that my journey to Vanderbilt from 16th to 21st Avenue is one measured in a lifetime rather than any perceptions or illusions of success or failure, “the Row” is now just a place where I park my vehicle. When a scheduling conflict and degree requirements compelled me to sign up for Dr. Perkins’ course, “Songwriting from a Theological Perspective,” I had to contend with many issues from my not-so-distant past. During one of our classes, guest songwriter Mary Gauthier instructed us to “write what you know” and “tell the listener what you see.” I imagined having Mary Gauthier accompany me to my field education placement at a maximum-security correctional facility for men, i.e. a prison, looking for a perspective that would allow for truth-telling and truly seeing.

At the prison, one man was intrigued by the birds perched on his window sill. He pointed out many of the details about the birds. Finally, he said, “I’m just a jailbird.”  “In fact,” he continued, “we’re all jailbirds in here, and we’ve all decided that you’re really one of us. There’s something about you, Chaplain Brian. We know you’re really a jailbird, too. You’ve got some pain, Chap. Yep, you’re a jailbird!”
I wrote “jailbird” in my notebook, knowing exactly what my song idea would be for Dr. Perkins’ class. On my way out of the compound, I noticed a mockingbird on the razor wire, red-winged blackbirds on the perimeter fence, and a large flock of turkeys nearby. All these birds provided the imagery for the first verse of my song about a jailbird.

In truth, the song is about my life experience and the ministry of presence and listening—of sharing in the struggle and pain of the cage, any cage, with men in prison. From Music Row to Death Row, my life has taken wing since making my way to Vanderbilt Divinity School. My work in the prison enables me to listen to what I see, and Dr. Perkins teaches songwriting from a theological perspective that compels us to tell what we see and to write what we know. I dedicate this song to Dave, to the men of Unit Seven, and to fellow jailbirds.


Mockingbirds on razor wire
Carolina wrens in the window sill
Red-winged blackbirds on the fence; fourteen turkeys out in the field
My bird’s-eye view of the birds I view is how I fly through time

Numbered clothes and numbered days
Doin’ life for a paint-by-numbers crime
A badge with keys keeps me in line, so I can live to do my time
My bird’s-eye view of the birds I view is how I fly through time

I’m a jailbird, a caged thing, a fallen soul – a broken wing
I’m a captive heart without a song, never seen or heard – Jailbird

Brian Darnell, MDiv3


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