Slightly late on the uptake here, but Sunday night and I was West End bound for yet another evening with @billybragg. I’ve seen the Bard more times in the past month than I have all year. And there’s still more to come with a gig at ULU this weekend.
But this wasn’t your traditional Billy Bragg gig. The performance at the Prince Charles Cinema concluded the screening of Breaking Rocks, the film telling the remarkable story of the Jail Guitar Doors project:
Jail Guitar Doors is an independent initiative, which aims to provide instruments to those who are using music as a means of achieving the rehabilitation of prison inmates.
Put simply, Billy (and others) raise money to fund the purchase of guitars for inmates. Aware of the scope that music can have for positive action, the aim is firmly on rehabilitation, and possible opportunities post release from prison.
Yeah, yeah – why should we give resources to criminals who rob, assault and genuinely cause problems within society? As Mark Thomas explains during the film – people who try and politicise the penal system are forgetting that most prisoners are eventually released. It therefore makes sense to try and change their behaviour, and offer our support.
Jail Guitar Doors isn’t advocating a brand new Fender bass for mass murderers. There are some criminals that deserved to be locked up for life, such is the severity of their crime, as Billy Bragg explained on the night.
It’s the career petty criminals, sucked into a cycle of crime and abuse that the project tries to help. There are some genuine success stories, such as Leon Watson, a remarkable (and incredibly witty) singer songwriter, who entertained the cinema crowd following the film.
The inspiration for Jail Guitar Doors came from Joe Strummer. Most things involving Billy Bragg usually do. Wanting to put into action some form of celebration five years after Uncle Joe’s death, Bill was given the opportunity to visit a local jail in his Devon area to try and offer musical support.
One visit became a succession of trips, and soon a tour of prisons around the country was in place, putting on workshops and exploring the creativity and ideas of some of the inmates.
Sponsorship came from Hanks on Denmark Street, which very kindly sold on the guitars at cost price. Bill makes a point of stating that the guitars are not a gift. This is not a prison basket-weaving club. You’re in it to try and transform your life, not to pass away the time behind bars.
The screening on Sunday night was warm, affectionate and funny. Brixton prison is featured in the film, with a surprising number of inmates already having musical talent, and just needing that extra help to find a release for their skills.
Twenty prisons have so far been supplied with the Jail Guitar Doors. Five hundred pounds is what it costs to supply each prison with the equipment. Bill has been on tour with the film and a selection of rehabilitated musicians for the past month. The bucket collection alone in London came up with £400 on the night – very real financial help with tangible results right in front of our eyes.
A Q & A session followed the screening. Questions were answered about the selection of inmates for the scheme (the talents comes to you,) the funding of the scheme by government (absolutely not – independence is best) and how we can support the offenders once released (put on gigs and promote.)
Half an hour then followed with a couple of the released inmates showcasing their skills. These are genuine, hard working professional musicians. The evidence was right in front of us. It’s got to be better than the cycle of petty crime.
As ever, the beacon for all of this is Billy Bragg. We finished off with three songs, including I Keep Faith. This is the inspiration I need. It reaffirms everything I do and stand for, and always leaves me full of positive action for the future.
The next step for Jail Guitar Doors is to take the show on the road to the States. A spot at SXSW has been booked, with the project going full circle with the involvement of MC5 guitarist, Wayne Kramer.
The Clash’s Jail Guitar Doors was written originally about Kramer, and so the story has some wonderful symmetry with the former US inmate now taking the music as a redemption song into Stateside prisons.
The film finishes off with rendition of Jail Guitar Doors by a gurning Mick Jones, a respectful looking Topper Headonand Billy Bragg bashing out the chords in his best old punk skool style. But perhaps more importantly, a studio full of strumming inmates, now released, rehabilitated and full of optimism, are the real stars of the performance.
Uncle Joe would have been proud.