Holding a double bass made in Milan in 1863, Richard Hartshorne stood before a Keene audience of about 20. He introduced himself and talked about previous concerts in New Hampshire, Illinois and California.
“You been to Dannemora? Clinton, New York?” someone asked.
No, Hartshorne replied. He had never played at Clinton Correctional Facility.
Hartshorne, 74, goes by Dobbs and lives in Nelson. For the past decade and a half, he has been playing Johann Sebastian Bach pieces and original compositions in prisons and jails, refugee camps, addiction-treatment centers and other unconventional settings. He travels to places such as Palestine, Afghanistan, Uganda and Iraq, and also performs in the U.S.
On Thursday afternoon, he was gearing up for his second performance of the day at the Cheshire County jail. “I was sick of playing for little old ladies,” he told an audience of men wearing hunter’s-orange clothing and Crocs. He wanted to bring live music to people who don’t hear enough of it.
He sat down and began Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2, his mouth moving behind a white half-circle of a beard as he played the sad and stately melody.
Some men leaned forward in their gray or brown plastic chairs. Some sat back and closed their eyes. Some stared.
The room — white cinderblock walls, a couple doors, windows cross-hatched with wire — was silent but for the music and, at one point, the harsh buzz of a door opening to let in a latecomer.
Hartshorne finished and stood. “Any questions?”
“How old is that instrument? And I’m gonna guess it’s made of walnut,” said the man who’d asked about Dannemora. A few minutes later, he changed his guess — tiger maple.
“I was thinking rosewood,” said another person in the audience.
Ugandan kids, Afghans dealing with drug addiction, people incarcerated in the United States — they all react the same to the music, Hartshorne said in an interview Thursday morning. “There’s this kind of mesmerized focus.”
He was quick to pass on the credit. “I don’t think it’s me,” he said. “I think it’s Bach.”
In New Hampshire, a state Arts in Health Project Grant supports Hartshorne’s performances at correctional facilities. The grant aims to improve the quality of life for “underserved populations, which can include the elderly, people with disabilities, and people with health challenges,” according to the website of the N.H. State Council on the Arts.
Hartshorne said he visits 20 to 30 institutions in the state each year; earlier this week, he was at the Sullivan County jail in Claremont.
“These are our neighbors, you know. And these are people who are gonna be back out on the streets soon,” he said. “And even if they weren’t, they’re still humans. So if you can bring ‘em some music and change sort of the way they’re thinking and the way they’re feeling — I mean, who knows what kind of lasting effect it has. But it has an immediate effect.”
For the second half of Thursday’s show, Hartshorne performed two original compositions — humorous songs, accompanied by bass and scattered chuckles from the audience. The first involved a man stranded on a mountain in Japan who survived by eating mayonnaise. The other narrated a car trip on which Hartshorne got horribly lost, ending up in North Carolina instead of Cleveland.
“I was feeling lucky, looking for Kentucky,” he sang as he plucked at the instrument’s strings.
Hartshorne ended the show by shaking each person’s hand and telling them he hopes not to see them when he returns to perform at the jail next year. “I hope you’re not here,” he said. “I hope you’re all home succeeding.”
“It was cool,” said Jason Fournier, who’s been at the jail a little over a month. Fournier himself is a musician — he said he plays guitar.
“I haven’t seen anybody with a classical bass recently,” he said. “It was a treat.”
Then he followed the other men into the hall. He put his hands against the wall, and a guard patted him down.