Members of the American tribal love-rock musical, Hair, perform for Cook County Jail inmates. August 1970. Credit: Sun-Times Print Collection

Chicago’s west side is home to one of the country’s largest predetention facilities: the Cook County Jail. According to the Cook County sheriff’s office, nearly 100,000 men and women annually declare the 96-acre complex at “26th and Cal” their temporary residence. The future well-being of these men and women is in limbo postelection, as a candidate who came to power on talk of “law and order” and “stop and frisk” prepares to step into the White House.

But today, we’ll revisit the late 1960s, a transformative time for the jail. Winston Moore, the country’s first black warden, was hired to oversee its day-to-day operations during that time, and later became the head of the Cook County Department of Corrections. He was fired in 1977 after accusations of misconduct. But during his tenure, he earned the names “reformer and a corruption fighter,” as the Tribune put it, inviting musicians like B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Ramsey Lewis, and Aretha Franklin to perform in the jail courtyard and gymnasium. In the years following, inmate-led bands entertained their peers, providing a temporary escape from the harsh realities of incarceration.

The 1990 documentary Blues in the Big House showcases many of these performances.

Featuring excerpts of raw footage from Blues in the Big House archived at the website Media Burn, and photographs from the Sun-Times archive, this multimedia narrative offers an alternative look into Cook County Jail, one that offers momentary glimpses of leisure and happier feelings.

Looking at the footage, I’m reminded of the words of the late poet Maya Angelou, speaking of caged birds with clipped wings standing on graves of dreams trilling songs of freedom. I see a landscape of barbed wire and broken families, and if I listen closely, I can hear music and dreams echoing through these bars of rage.