He ain’t Johnny Cash—not by a long shot. No country twang. No pout. No man in black. Instead, Richard “Dobbs” Hartshorne totes a double bass and packs a parcel of J.S. Bach.
But like the country legend, who built his reputation playing for prisoners, Hartshorne, as he likes to be known, can captivate a captive audience at a state pen, as he did recently for inmates at San Quentin State Prison, playing the Baroque composer’s calming Six Solo Suites for Unaccompanied Cello transcribed for double bass.
Since 2004, this internationally respected string player and peace activist, along with pianist Tali Margolis, has been sharing highbrow culture with some of society’s most outcast citizens.
With state funding cuts mounting in prison education programs, Hartshorne is on the tail end of a whistlestop tour, bringing classical music to prisons, juvie halls and drug-abuse programs around the state.
He’s now reached one-third of the state correctional facilities in California.
This week Hartshorne makes an appearance for both local inmates and, as part of a local fundraiser for his organization, some of Marin’s more well-heeled and law-abiding residents.
On March 27, [he performed] for incarcerated youths at the Marin Juvenile Justice Center in San Rafael, and on March 29, at the Henry Ohlhoff House, a residential substance-abuse treatment facility in Novato.
In addition to Bach fugues and cello sonatas, the accomplished storyteller and classical musician offers insight about composers and their works, telling them about Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s persecution at the hands of authorities of the repressive Soviet state and other tales.
The Prison Concert Project has proved rewarding for the musician and inmates alike. “Mainly, what I try to do is give them permission to do anything they want and not feel like they’re required to understand something or get some specific thing from the music,” Hartshorne recently told the San Rafael-based Strings magazine. “Anything that they get is good.
“I throw a lot of stuff out there just to help them.”
The innovative prison project is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The project is just one of the double bassist’s many Bach with Verse programs that merge music and social justice issues. As a founding member of the New Hampshire-based Apple Hill Chamber Players, he has co-hosted summer camps for young Israeli and Palestinian string players, performed in the Middle East and Central America, and sent sheet music and musical instruments to students in Afghanistan.
Reprinted by permission from the Pacific Sun