Billy Bragg’s Charity Gives Guitars To Inmates

Billy Brag Jail Guitar Doors

Since 2007, British folk-punk troubadour Billy Bragg has been providing guitars and guitar lessons for prison inmates throughout the U.K. via his Jail Guitar Doors organization. In 2009, he found an ideal counterpart to start an American offshoot, in former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who served nearly three years in Kentucky’s Lexington Federal Prison on drug charges back in the late 1970s. But their partnership had a bumpy start.

“I was doing a concert at Sing Sing prison in New York with Billy, Perry Farrell, Jerry Cantrell and Don Was,” Kramer remembers. “I saw ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ written on Billy’s guitar, and asked him about the name. He said, ‘Oh, it’s an old Clash b-side. Have you heard it?’ I said, ‘Billy, how does the first verse go?’ So he started singing, ‘Let me tell you ’bout Wayne/And his deals in cocaine. … Oh bloody hell, it’s about you!’ ”

“I was so embarrassed,” Bragg says. “But the good thing is that when I told that story to (the Clash’s) Mick Jones, who co-wrote the song, he didn’t remember it either.”

Since that inauspicious beginning, Wayne has carried out the org’s mission throughout the States, corralling guitars for 50 prisons, and maintaining a waiting list of 60 more. (Kramer just started a program in Los Angeles’ Twin Towers facility this spring.) In addition to donating instruments, the org provides songwriting sessions, lectures and guest concerts, with local musicians maintaining regular programs inside the facilities.

Though a guitar’s most obvious benefit to a convict is its ability to sooth the monotony of prison life — one of the messages Bragg paints on the donated guitars reads, “This Machine Kills Time,” a reference to Woody Guthrie’s famous WWII-era anti-fascist slogan — Bragg notes that simply strumming an instrument can be a form of therapy. “As a guitar-player, I understand how playing an instrument can allow you to momentarily transcend your surroundings,” he says, “and give you an opportunity to find yourself again.”

Adds Kramer: “Whenever I present the guitars to a facility, I always say: We don’t give these guitars as gifts. These guitars represent a message from the people who donated the money to buy them, that people on the outside believe in you. They know that you’re here, and want you to rejoin the rest of us. Prison is an environment that tells you all the time that you have no value in the world. And the act of creativity is a good argument against that negativity.”

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 4


    Leave a Reply


    Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

    Google+ photo

    You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

    Connecting to %s

    1. Karen roberts says:

      Hi I’ve heard you donate guitars to inmates could you please message me to let me know how to apply please

    2. George McDowell says:

      It is heart-warming to see this guy hug these thugs and help people out who don’t deserve it when there are victims of these thugs all over the place that could use his empathy. Another Johnny Cash-style scumbag who prefers the company of felons.

      • Eric D says:

        If someone is in prison, generally that means they lost the case. Which is to imply that the defendant received legal compensation. George, if your beef is with the unfairness of this compensation, that is a different issue than Bragg’s charitable organization. Also, crime prevention is totally unrelated to what Bragg is doing.

        Reminding people that they are still people and not worthless is a worthwhile goal. Your comparison is not a fair opportunity-cost. That’s like saying to a kid that they need to eat their peas because there are starving people in 3rd world countries– as if they could somehow mail their peas, and as if that would even help if they could.

        • Clay P says:

          Well said,Eric D…Johnny Cash-style scumbag,really Mr. McDowell?? Cash had problems in his younger days,but second chances and the love of a good woman brought him out of the darkness…he went behind those bars to let the inmates know that they WERE NOT pieces of human excrement,that they STILL HAD VALUE,no matter what they’d done….

          Too often,it is the reinforcing of negative stereotypes that serve to keep “felons” in the mold of felons..

          Allow me to ask you,Mr. McDowell: Have you ever been given a second chance,by anyone??Before you answer,just let me say-If you’ve never needed one,then you’re just the second coming,aren’t you?

    More Scene News from Variety