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.”