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Ketchikan musician a regular fixture at prison

By Scott Bowlen

Ketchikan Daily News

Published: Thursday, Dec. 2 2010 4:49 p.m. MST

KETCHIKAN, Alaska — It's a Wednesday evening in the Ketchikan Correctional Center, and Freddie John is getting ready to sing.

He plugs his guitar into a portable PA system while his wife, Joann, arranges a batch of cookies on a table near the door of a meeting room within the facility.

Soon, inmates begin to file in. Most take seats in the hard plastic chairs at the center of the room and start leafing through songbooks.

Two inmates with guitars sit along a side wall near the front of the room with two volunteers who'd arrived with the Freddie and Joann John. Three other inmates pick up microphones and stand next to Freddie John, 82, who's now wearing a microphone headset.

John has been bringing these songs into the Ketchikan Correctional Center since the 1960s and hopes to continue for a long while yet.

"I was sitting in the jail one day and a guy said, Â How long are you going to be singing, Freddie?'" said John. "Â Well, let's see, I'm 80 now and I asked the Lord to give me 20 more years.' He gave me two more, and I've got 18 to go."

Born in 1928, Fred "Freddie" John got an early start on Christian music.

His grandfather and parents helped build a church building for The Salvation Army Gateway Corps in Ketchikan. John's father played trombone in the church, his uncle played guitar.

When John was 8, his brother-in-law gave him his first guitar.

Music came naturally to the youth. By the time John started attending the Wrangell Institute boarding school at age 14, he already was winning music competitions with songs like "Lovesick Blues" and "Just Because."

John's parents, however, declined a music teacher's request to take John to New York City to continue his music education.

During World War II, John tried to join the Army when he was 15. He actually made it into the Army toward the end of the war, when he was 17.

"That's where I learned my country music," John said.

John got out of the service in 1948, but his personal life hit a rough patch.

"I went a little haywire, like all young men," he said.

He kept playing music, though. He said he sang regularly in the Sourdough Bar for about a year and a half after leaving the service.

Things changed in 1951, around the time that he met his first wife, Lorena,

"The Lord came into my life and led us right into The Salvation Army," John said.

John soon was immersed in singing and playing music for church services and functions, all while fully employed. His long working career included the Laborers Union, the Ketchikan Spruce Mill (28 years) and the Ketchikan School District for about 15 years.

During the 1960s, he began traveling for The Salvation Army during his breaks from work.

"Instead of taking a vacation and going south, I'd take my four weeks and we'd travel," John said.

The travels expanded into Canada, along the U.S. West Coast, and east to Michigan. His last trip was with a Salvation Army group that visited the Caribbean and South America.

John continued to play and sing in Ketchikan, visiting various churches and playing for conventions, memorial services and Christmas events.

He was sitting in a church service one Sunday during the 1960s when something inside him said, "You know, you need to go to the prison."

"It went like that for about a month, and finally I said, 'Well, I'll call up there and they'll probably say no,'" John said.

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