Rosebush Inside: Moreese Bickham And Sean Hayes' Story

Singer/songwriter Sean Hayes is constantly looking for inspiration for his music. He found it in the story of a man named Moreese Bickham who served more than 40 years in Angola prison. Little did he know that by writing the song, he was about to change Moreese's story...All the music in this piece was by Sean Hayes. Thank you to David Isay, StoryCorps founder and the producer of Tossing Away the Keys. It is a magnificent piece of radio. And last but not least, many thanks to the inimitable Moreese Bickham, who now lives in Oakland, California.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX, NPR. My name is Glynn Washington. Today, we're diving into stories where real people find battles they are not looking for. And I cannot wait for you to hear this next piece. I cannot wait. Some of you know that SNAP's Stephanie Foo interviews musicians for her podcast "Stagedive." So she spoke to singer-songwriter Sean Hayes. You may know him for his song "Powerful Stuff."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POWERFUL STUFF")

WASHINGTON: But Sean's story does not start with his music. It starts with a book that was given to him as a present.

SEAN HAYES: And inside the book there was a bunch of different stories. And one of the stories was taken from a radio program called "Tossing Away the Keys," which was about men who had been serving death row sentences in Angola prison. A lot of the men are afraid they're going to be forgotten in jail. They had interviewed several of these men. The one that stuck out was named Moreese Bickham, who had been in Angola prison I think for 40-some years. And 14 of those years was on death row in solitary confinement. Here is the tape from "Tossing Away the Keys."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TAKING AWAY THE KEYS")

MOREESE BICKHAM: My name is Moreese Bickham. My number is 75251. And I'm 72 years old. I've been in prison ever since 1958. Thirty one years later, and I'm still locked up. My crime is murder.

HAYES: In 1958, he had been in a fight with his girlfriend and the police showed up. And he got into an argument with them and supposedly they were Dragon Clan members. They said they were going to come back and get him later that night to kill him. And he went home. And then later that night, they did show up. They shot at him and he got shot and he shot both of those police officers. He was a black man living in a white neighborhood.

And of course, nobody came forward to witness what they had saw in his neighborhood. So he was put on trial and sentenced to death and spent 14 years in solitary confinement before the death penalty was abolished in Louisiana. So then he served out life without parole. One of the things that he talked about in the story was tending these rosebushes and how they gave him hope and extra meaning serving his sentence.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TAKING AWAY THE KEYS")

BICKHAM: Come over here. I want to introduce you to the beautiful rosebush. I want a whole yard. This is one here is my favorite. I named it after my wife, Ernestine - a beautiful pink rose. And some way or another, I keep it trimmed and uniformed looking, too. I call it my beauty. I know it sounds funny, but these are my company keepers. I enjoy these bushes. See if it wasn't for these bushes I wouldn't have nothing to do. So these bushes have come to be close, close, very close to me.

HAYES: What really stuck out to me was this man who had such dignity in his voice and his outlook, even though he had spent all of these years in prison and really had no hope of getting out. He still did have hope and he's just - he didn't have any blame in his voice for his situation. And so it stuck with me and I wrote a song called "Rosebush Inside." In the song - I just wanted to remind myself to be grateful for what I have - just kind of an everyday little mantra to sing to yourself sometimes when you're waiting in traffic and getting angry about silly things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSEBUSH INSIDE")

HAYES: I wanted people to know about his story and that's why beside the title, I put Moreese Bickham. But then one of the letters in his name on the record had got misspelled. So then I re-blogged about it after I put the record out just to let people know and point people towards his story. I never did write him. I thought about it, but, you know, in the back of my head, I was thinking he probably already had passed away. And then it wasn't until years after that that I got a strange e-mail. And I opened it and it said dear Mr. Hayes, I was listening to your song Rosebush, which was from me when I was in Angola. And it's my great desire to visit your performance at the Rickshaw Stop in January 2009.

BICKHAM: If it was possible, it would be a pleasure for you to make it available for me and my family and friends to come and see your performance and meet you in person. Thank you and God bless you. My name is Moreese Bickham. God bless America - home sweet home and I'm glad to be in it.

HAYES: Moreese had survived 37 years in prison and always retained this faith that he would get out.

BICKHAM: I had strong hopes of getting out. Got locked up on Saturday morning. Monday night, I asked - I said, Lord, I'm in trouble. I want to know that I'm going to get out of it. Honey I don't know why - was it in a dream or a vision or what? But my grandmother come back to the foot of my bed and talked with me, just like I'm talking with you.

HAYES: A vision of family members that had passed came and said he would make it through this.

BICKHAM: So Mama said go to help others all you can. I said I'm going to start right now. And that's what I did - doing everything I could to help others and I kept my record straight.

HAYES: I think that his straight record is actually what saved him. The producer who made the radio piece, David Isay, started a campaign to free Moreese. So a judge commuted his sentence to 37.5 years on good behavior, miraculously.

BICKHAM: My lawyer says to me, Bickham, you stayed in 37 years. What you going to be when you get out? I said just a plain old Bickham, up and down the streets. I got out in January the 10, 1996. I never will forget that day. It's the happiest day of my life. Oh, it was one Wednesday morning. It was kind of amazing. And the warden, when we walked to the front gate, he said to me, Bickham, what you thinking about? I said I'm thinking about them seven times y'all gave me a death sentence at 12:01. I said now, tonight, at 12:01, I'm signing myself out. He shook my hand and said have good luck. I said that's all I can have.

And I walked out, kneeled to the ground, picked up some of that dirt, kissed it, put it back there. And here I am today. My being locked up was a wonderful experience and a blessing to me. And people said what? How could it be a blessing? Well, I like fast cars and if I'd have been out, I'd likely wrap one around a telegram post or a bridge or something and been dead. You know, God shaped me, put me in the prison and took care of me. Out now, and anybody driving over the speed limit, I don't want to ride with him. Being free is being able to make your own decisions. You have to bear your own burdens that comes out of your own decisions.

HAYES: Now Maurice is 95 and his dignity and his joy for life - to find me and to come out and go to a rock 'n roll show late at night and show up - he's just living so much more fully than so many people who are 20, even, with no anger. And even though he's been through something none of us could imagine. He showed up to the show in a limousine with his friend and they were both dressed full on, to the nines. Came in - got to meet him and talk to him for a while. He was mystified at where I heard the story and he wondered if I'd, maybe, spent time in prison with him. I played the song, you know, right away. I wanted to introduce it. It was a strange story to try to tell in an audience full of people. People are understanding this in a much bigger way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSEBUSH INSIDE")

BICKHAM: Oh boy, it was beautiful. Everybody was dancing. He had some songs that I really loved. But the one about the rosebush, it kind of brought back memories, you know? It made me feel that the thing that I longed for had come to be reality. And I could've been sitting on that bush, hoping that I'd be out someday. Now I'm out and feel good to know that somebody still remembers me.

HAYES: And now the responsibility in the understanding of how stories work is more being revealed to me. You can't help but change the story by telling a story that you actually become part of the story. So it's a strange responsibility to be aware of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSEBUSH INSIDE")

WASHINGTON: Thank you so much to David Isay - the founder of StoryCorps. He produced "Tossing Away the Keys" and we thank him for letting us use his tape on our show. Thanks as well to Sean Hayes. He made all the music in this piece. And finally, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you Moreese Bickham for sharing your story with SNAP.

BICKHAM: SNAP JUDGMENT, that's - it's good sometimes to think a matter over before you make decisions. I don't make no swift decisions no more. I see it like this - if it's too important not to rest overnight on, well, I do not have much to do with it, you know?

WASHINGTON: All right, Moreese. We'll definitely take that into consideration.

(MUSIC)

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