Workin' On The Chain Gang

Paul Cauthen grew up in the ultra-conservative Church of Christ. He felt very out of place when his life took a turn for the worst and he found himself incarcerated in Texas, working on a chain gang.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Rage Against The Machine" episode. And today man - SNAP's decided not to be another cog in the wheel, man. You know what I'm saying? We're going to grow out long, man. We're going to ride the open road. Don't try to keep us in your corporate button-up, 401(k), premium gasoline world - no. See, one of the best ways that we know to stick it to the man, or to a higher power, or to your upstairs neighbor is to just sing your heart out. And that's exactly what Paul Cauthen does. Take it away, Paul.

(PIANO MUSIC)

PAUL CAUTHEN: When I was young, my granddad was a song leader in the church. And his twin brother was the preacher. And this was a little, small Church of Christ in East Texas. He taught me how to sing harmony when I was about six. Me and my two sisters were put in a bath tub. He would hum a note into your ear and he taught us how to really listen. I became a good singer at a young age, you know, I sang in the church a lot - super conservative Church of Christ. Sunday morning, Sunday night Wednesday night, three times a week thing. The rules of the Church of Christ - you don't sing with an instrument. Our voice is a voice that was given to us by God and God only is kind of the thing. I loved to go in the community and sing with 400 people all a cappella in a room, that's freaking awesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOSPEL CHOIR SINGING)

CAUTHEN: There was this old lady who sang and she had a booming, like, opera soprano voice. And like my granddad - he would give her a little nod from the stage and she'd just be killing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOSPEL CHOIR SINGING)

CAUTHEN: My granddad was, you know, when he was diagnosed with cancer when I was 10 years old and he didn't have long to live and he died about two months later so it was real fast, it was terrible, you know? And I had to grow up really fast because right after that, I mean, my parents got a divorce and it was me and my two sisters and my mother. And we were real broke. I would say that I was - I chose more of a rough past due to having to grow up so soon at a young age. Once I learned how to really drink beer and whiskey, I really did it with a meaning, so - and smoking pot and everything else - everything under the sun. Well, what happened was I got caught with weed, got put on probation, partied, got caught with some drug charges. They gave me the sentence that I'm going to have to do six months. My mom was freaking the hell out right before I went in there, you know? I mean, she was like saying don't be scared. And she's crying and I was like how am I supposed to not be scared when you're crying? Then they handcuffed me and put me in jail.

Buttoned up and taken to the pumpkin patch out on Highway 69 - wearing my orange jumpsuit onesie, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You have 35 (unintelligible) now.

CAUTHEN: There's three tanks. Three tanks could hold probably about 15 to 25 people in each tank. First tank I look in is all white people, second tank, all Mexican and Asian, third tank, all black people. And so I was like, wow, what in the hell have I stepped into? Now I'm seeing real-life segregation and all this stuff going on, you know. So there's only room in the African-American tank. I mean, they're bringing me in real late. These guys all wake up at 4:30 in the morning to go out to work. So the most annoying thing is when somebody's coming into their bunk and having - just waking everybody up, you know? I go to the very back corner. And they said, OK, take that and the officer shines the light into that top bunk in that corner. And I walk over there. And I'm a big guy so it's tough for me to just hop on a top bunk. So I use the foot of the bottom bunk, which was this guy Tony, this guy with a gold grill. And that guy said, hey, boy. That'll be the last time you step on my bed. And I was like, all right, I'm sorry, sir.

And I get no sleep that night.

I was just kind of paranoid more than anything. You could possibly be killed, or shanked, or hurt, or beat up, or raped or whatever goes to anybody's head in jail. You know, yeah, those things can eat you up or you can be like, you've got to be cool. You've got to not pissed off anybody, can't get too close to anybody. I mean, if all else failed, you know, I was going to keep to myself.

(VIOLIN MUSIC)

CAUTHEN: I started going out to the county road and bridge department that next morning. It's chain gang work, where you're hooked up. And you go out in vans and go fix the county roads and bridges around East Texas. When you're moved from the jail, in transport, you're chained to the next person next to you. And then when you go out, there's guys with guns.

(SINGING)

CAUTHEN: Breaking rocks down, singing (Singing) along the highway. It went like that. You know, it's not "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou" - close, you know? I'd walk behind an asphalt truck, pick out the rocks, big rocks, out of the black tar. It's real hot as hell, you know. It was me, Old-school, Reverend Al, Tony, Costanera (ph) - never forget this guy - in and out of jail for nine years, got it four different times, never got out for more than three days. Well, he said, man, I haven't had a burger in like seven years, man. And I was like, yeah, well, tomorrow I'll try to figure out how we do this. He said, no way, man. How are you going to get it passed Sarge(ph)? And I was like, dude, I'll figure out a way. And I'd find out where we're going the next day. And I called my dad and I called my mom. I was like OK, tomorrow morning, 10 a.m., you need to drop off a bunch of Whataburger cheeseburgers and a bunch of fries over here, 'cause I'm going to feed the whole crew. And I told my sergeant, I know that you're going to have to go all the way back to the other side of town Highway 69 and I-20 to get some food and bring us back bologna sandwiches. Or you can let these bags of cheeseburgers, that I just had my mom and dad drop off behind that building right there, and you can look at those. And you can have one yourself. There's a bacon cheeseburger in there with your name on it. And he said, all right. All these guys haven't had real food in years. It was like eating a burger for the first time. It felt like that time on that movie "Shawshank Redemption," on that roof - when they're tar the roof. And all those guys get to drink those beers. It was like, oh, my God. I feel like Andy Dufresne. (Laughing) We didn't eat all the burgers 'cause, I mean, our stomachs haven't been eating real food. And when you just start grubbing on something greasy, you know, it's just like, your stomach. So we tried to smuggle the burgers back in into the jail. We're walking in and we each have two burgers in our little onesie. And they pat us down and they find all these burgers. And they say, all right, we're giving you 10 minutes - 10 minutes to eat all that. And so we sat there and we were still full, but we just said this is for the guys inside. So Tony, later, he said, so tell me why you're in here and, you know, asked me all these questions. That kind of made it to where, OK, I'm sorry for stepping on your bed and now we're friends. Let's smoke cigarettes or should the [BLEEP].

Well, we started singing gospel songs. Well we start freaking - got the pens you know. Do that kind of stuff, you know? And we'd get Styrofoam cups and cut out the bottom of the cup and make our own little microphone, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: One, two - ooh, I got you.

CAUTHEN: We'd all sing this three-part harmony - old hymns that my granddad taught me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEACE IN THE VALLEY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Well, I'm so tired and so weary but I must go along, 'til the Lord...

CAUTHEN: By about the fourth or fifth Sunday, there was standing room only in that cell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEACE IN THE VALLEY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) There will be peace in the valley for me someday. There will be peace...

CAUTHEN: When you can - for some reason, music, and singing and singing with somebody brings you close, you know? And you feel - you get a warm sensation over you. You feel good. The people that don't talk much or kind of you to themselves, for some reason, that Sunday they'd come out and you'd hear them singing. Or they'd have something to say or something to offer to talk about - not talk about the Bible or anything. They'd talk about life, you know, and that was one thing - it was probably one of the best churches I'd been to - shoot. I do remember one time when we did sing "Peace In The Valley," our buddy Reverend Al is what we'd call him. And he kind of choked up a little bit 'cause, you know, it was one of the songs they sang at his grandmother's funeral or something. And then he talked about that. It was just real talk. All of sudden, it was me and five black guys that became my best friends. We hug like kin. We're family. We have a bond that's beyond - you know, we've been at the lowest point of our lives together.

Singing together with some folks from jail brought joy and brought some light at the end of the tunnel for me, because I knew - I knew what I had to do when I got out. And I guess the recognition of being able to just put together a little singing group in the jailhouse kind of let me realize I could put together a group anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) To whom do you belong? To love you sweetly, to love you strong. Tonight, I'm lonesome. To whom do you belong?

WASHINGTON: Paul Cauthen now heads the band Sons of Fathers. They just put out their new album called "Burning Days." Check it out. They're on tour across the USA. That piece was produced by Stephanie Foo.

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