April 12, 2023 Musicology No Comments

I had heard it myself, once, and have to admit, I didn’t give the matter a thought. But I was asked to do a little “fact checking.”

It has been about a month since this production shot to the top of iTunes sales lists. And Billboard’s too. “Justice For All” if you’ve not heard it, is a recording that combines the “Star Spangled Banner,” performed by prisoners incarcerated following the events of January 6th, and a recording of the “Pledge Of Allegiance” performed by Donald Trump. It was the opening number at Trump’s Waco rally.

And here is the source recording that I was told it was supposedly built from, the original recording from the Washington D.C. prison.

So the question was, “is the recording from the TikTok really the one in Justice For All?” Is that doable?

And this too: There’s supposedly an anonymous top-tier producer involved, so whether you imagine that’s Kanye, Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, or Jonathan Cain, someone might have a magic touch.

How about we deal with that part first? I’ll just submit that there are some hurried elections in the accompaniment, and in my opinion, it’s unlikely there’s a Jonathan Cain-level musician behind this. Can’t go “pants on fire” with it, because really, who knows? But I said it was likely false.

And as for the larger question:

“Is it actually that recording of the prisoners singing that’s in ‘Justice For All?'”

First, as usual, a bit of critical listening and a not-too-fussy transcription, just the first handful of notes. The bottom staff is the melody to “Oh Say Can You See.” And the top staff is what the J6 Choir in the TikTok video sang.

There’s obviously very little agreement around the pitches, but that’s how these things go. They’re all over the place, and any of us would be too. That’s how it goes. A couple of quick thoughts did occur to me, however.

When a bunch of folks starts up singing outta nowhere, whether it’s “Happy Birthday” or “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow,” as we said, it’s gonna be a pretty random start. But from the chaos, a tonality will usually emerge and win out, because one or two people will be able to carry a tune, and gradually the mob will gravitate toward those voices. You can hear it in the prison performance; it finds its key center, and that key center is B Major. And that’s how I transcribed it.

Why, then, is “Justice For All” in Ab Major? Yes, it could be transposed or pitch-shifted in software to any key, but why would you pitch-shift the whole thing away from where it most naturally sits, introducing complexity and maybe unnecessary audio artifacts. It seemed like an odd choice, giving some credence to the notion that “Justice For All” was built from some other session where they sang in Ab Major in the first place.

And what about that “(our flag was) STILL THERE” part that’s just yelled? That doesn’t sound like it’s from the J6 TikTok either. Why would you process that at all from the original when you could leave it alone, add some ambiance, and splice it in?

But rather than looking to detect the J6 choir’s TikTok recording in the very manipulated “Justice For All,” I asked myself what I’d do if someone asked me to make “Justice For All.” And…

It’s probably just what it says it is.

Give me one long day, and I could make them sound like angels and produce the whole song, former Prez and all. But just to substantiate the claim, here are a few notes.

It takes a bit of finagling obviously, but “Justice For All” can be done from the material at hand. And this doesn’t sound exactly the same as the chart-topper of course, because it wouldn’t. My manipulation won’t be exactly theirs. More than one way to get there.

But to the question of, “Is it possible to make “Justice For All” from that J6 Prison Choir iPhone recording without some other better-performed recording involved?” My answer was yes, by far, the most available hypothesis is that “Justice For All” is just what it says it is.

Written by Brian McBrearty