LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Mothers in prison rarely get to see their kids or hold them or sing them a lullaby. Female inmates in New York City are getting a little help to get closer to their children thanks to Carnegie Hall. For a few years now, Carnegie sponsored the Lullaby Project, which pairs professional musicians with women in jails, homeless shelters and city hospitals. They help them write lullabies for their children.
Jeff Lunden spent a few days with the musicians and inmates in the city's largest jail, Riker's Island, to see how the Lullaby Project works.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: It's a frigid morning, and five musicians have made their way through a myriad of checkpoints to a small classroom where they'll work with ten prisoners - women who are either detainees awaiting trial or women who are serving out their sentences at Rikers Island. To break the ice, Deidre Rodman Struck, a singer and songwriter who's been working with the Lullaby Project since 2011, has everyone sit in a circle and sing a lullaby.
DEIDRE STRUCK: One, two, ready go.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Tiffany loves you. Love is magical. Love will keep you safe.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Nayesha loves you. Love is magical.
LUNDEN: After an hour of getting to know each other, it's time to write their own lullabies. The 10 women go to different corners of the classroom. They start by writing letters to their children in workbooks.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Your assignment now is to write down the words in the order that you remember them.
LUNDEN: There are some suggestions - start sentences with I hope, I wish or I wonder. One of the musicians is songwriter Daniel Levy.
DANIEL LEVY: The first thing you ask for is, write down things you really care about. So you're asking people to really open up their hearts. And they don't know me. They don't know the other people in the room. But you're trying to get something that's real into the song. Like any songwriter wants that, like a piece of truth.
LUNDEN: Levy is working with a woman named Vateya. The Department of Corrections asked that we don't use any of these women's last names or say what brought them to Rikers Island. Vateya says the assignment was not easy.
VATEYA: I actually have a headache because I was very focused. And at first, I was like, I can't do this. This is too hard. But they kept telling me to just write what whatever, and that's what I did.
LUNDEN: Levy takes a look at Vateya's written, and even before they come up with a tune, they've got a rhythm going.
LEVY: They're going to be jumping up and down.
LEVY: Two, three.
VATEYA: (Singing) My baby, sweet babies, I love you like crazy. You're wonderful and fun, sweet like honey buns.
LEVY: I like the sweet-like-honey-buns. It's a nice way to end.
LUNDEN: In another corner of the room, a woman named Kelly is working with Falu Shah, an Indian classical singer. The two of them quickly come up with a chorus.
KELLY AND FALU SHAH: (Singing) I wonder if you know how much I love you? I wonder if you know how much he loves you?
LUNDEN: The song is written from two perspectives - Kelly's and that of the children's late father.
KELLY: They lost their father recently, and fortunately the two younger children, they don't really know much about what's going on. They know that he's, you know, daddy's not around. And I really wanted to get the message, to the older ones especially, that their father's still , and that he's looking down on them so that they feel some sort of comfort, you know, since I can't be there physically.
LUNDEN: The group's leader, Deidre Struck, is working with Tarsha, who has six children. She wants to write something upbeat for her 1-year-old twins.
LUNDEN: There's a lot of laughter in the room, but as the day goes on, there are also a lot of tears. Tarsha reveals that one of her twins, Damonee, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and she hasn't seen the other, Demitri, in seven months.
TARSHA: When I lost my son, I got really hard with my struggles, and I just didn't care. But Demitri, he's my everything. He's my air that I breathe, my spine. He just makes me know that there's nothing more valuable, more special in this world than my children - all of them.
LUNDEN: To be able to give those children something - anything - means a lot, says Veronica Scudder, who helps coordinate programs for the women at Rikers Island.
VERONICA SCUDDER: For them to have the opportunity to write a song for their children is really, really a nice feeling. And that's where you see their face light up because they feel like, wow. I'm really doing something. And I'm doing it in a jail. That's unheard of.
LUNDEN: When the first day ends, the musicians leave and get down to the business of transcribing, arranging and polishing the lullabies. One week later, they're in a Manhattan recording studio laying down tracks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEMITRI, DAMONEE")
STRUCK: (Singing) Demitri, Damonee, I hope that you know that mommy, she's missing you and loving you. Demitri, Damonee I love you.
LUNDEN: Deidre Struck has given Tarsha's song for her twins a Latin feel.
STRUCK: Her story is so sad but the song is so happy. I'm hoping it captures what she wanted to say.
LUNDEN: That's crucial, says Daniel Levy.
LEVY: The most important thing for all of us is that we're collaborating with the women. So you have to keep them and their children and their wishes foremost in your mind.
LUNDEN: And Levy says there was one really important part of their collaboration.
LEVY: When we started the bridge - there's so much joy when we're together and even when we're not - she did that clause, and even when we're not. We had to search around because you have to now - you have to finish the idea. Even when we're not what? So we have to find out, and even when we're not, it's OK. We make the most of any time we got. And that was a kind of a crucial point there. She admitted that she was away from them. She admitted that it wasn't ideal. But they're going to make the most of what they have. And that's right there in the song and she needs to tell them that.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) There's so much joy when we're together and even when we're not. It's OK we make the most of anytime we've got. Oh Harmony and Princeton, my (unintelligible), my (unintelligible), my sweetheart, my stinkin', my princess, my top, my babies.
LUNDEN: A week after the recording sessions, the musicians are back in the same room at Rikers with their co-songwriters to hear the finished lullabies.
FALU SHAH: (Singing) I wonder if you know how much I love you. I wonder if you know how much he loves you.
LUNDEN: Kelly is overwhelmed by Falu Shah's setting of her lullaby.
KELLY: (Crying). Thank you so much.
KELLY: Now that I heard everybody's songs, it's just, they're all so beautiful. I mean, you know, when it comes to our children and stuff, maybe it brings out the best in us.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Absolutely.
KELLY: You know, we all became songwriters for them, right?
LUNDEN: After an intense private hour, the musicians do two concerts of all the lullabies in a gymnasium for many of the other women prisoners. And each of the participants gets to take a bow after her song.
STRUCK: (Singing) Demitri, Damonee. I love you. I love you.
STRUCK: Yeah, Tarsha.
LUNDEN: And the tears turned to joy, says Tarsha.
TARSHA: It made me feel so good. It really inspired me to continue to do lullabies for my children. And I'm so thankful that you all came out today to see us. It really made me feel special. It really let me know that there's more than just my family that cares about us, that it's people on the outside that care about us too.
LUNDEN: The Lullaby Project is expanding beyond New York City and Carnegie Hall. Several arts organizations around the country have begun their own lullaby projects. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER")
SHAH: (Singing) I wonder if you know how much I love you. I wonder if you know how much he loves you.
WERTHEIMER: If you want to listen to the lullabies, all of them from the current Rikers Island project are at our website npr.org.
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