Some people call Stephen William Bragg a protest singer: some people call him a political campaigner: most people will know him as a great songwriter. But his recent stand against RBS banker’s bonuses, and refusal to pay his own tax bills until they are curbed, proves that he’s willing to put himself on the line for causes. These aren’t just a series of just worthy ‘issues’ to be sung about and used and abused for his self-gratification. You could call him worthy but the issues he fights for are worth making a stand for, for Billy they are a way of life, his politics bleeds into his personal experiences in his songs, see the classic eighties hit ‘A New England’ as one of countless examples. Billy Bragg was involved in Red Wedge the left leaning musical and political movement in the 80s and latterly has supported the Rock Against Racism campaign. He says his life was changed after seeing The Clash play live at Victoria Park in 1978, inspiring him to write about social and political issues, Billy explained: “Prison has to be about much more than just locking people up. We want people to be able to move on from their situation and reconnect with the outside world, and my hunch was that playing an instrument – particularly a guitar – could help that.”
With echoes of Johnny Cash’s visit to Fulsom Prison, with his new project ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ Billy Bragg has gone one stage further reaching into the prisons to help those that can’t help themselves, those lost between the cracks of society. Thus Jail Guitars is an independent initiative, inspired by a letter from prison a drug and alcohol counsellor Malcom Dudley of Guys March H P. Founded by Billy Bragg, it takes its name from the b-side of the Clash’s 1978 single ‘Clash City Rockers’ a song originally inspired by Wayne Kramer’s (MC5) time in prison in the seventies. It aims to provide instruments to those who are using music as a means of achieving the rehabilitation of prison inmates. Billy, the director Alun Miles and its graduates, are now touring the film around the countries cinemas, screening the film, taking questions and performing alongside those graduates of this most worthwhile initiative. I attended a screening at Cardiff’s Chapter arts center a few weeks back; this is my documentation of the day.
The insightful new film ‘Breaking Rocks’ is directed by Alan Miles: “Breaking Rocks” it documents The Jail Guitar Doors project up close and person with the people, artists and prisoners involved. It features Billy’s journey with the JGD project, and the reasons why he became involved (an increasing prison population and a increase in re-offending rates). We follow Billy into prisons, his connection with the prisoners through music, and his use of donated stencilled guitars to reach out to them. There are performances by Billy and all of the ‘graduates’ of Jail Guitar Doors: including a joyous one note Glatonbury performance from one of the first prisoners to be released. But perhaps the star of the film is former con Leon Walker whose cheeky, infectious Yorkshire character shines through the screen, having been sentences to a term in prison for drugs offences, using his guitar and song writing to change direction. There’s also the more southern Johnny Neesom whose expressive work on the guitar is affecting. There are touching and inspiring scenes featuring many of the artists that have supported the programme including Mick Jones (The Clash) who performs on the reworked rendition of ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ plus Chris Shiflett (Foo Fighters) who stumbled upon Jail Guitar doors project through Billy’s website and entered a prison to lend his experience to the inmates, plus Sam Duckworth (Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly) who set about recording an album collecting together the songs composed by the graduates and artists involved. ‘Breaking Rocks’ is a fine, fine documentary film, depicting its subjects with humour and a sense of purpose, and whilst it does rather hammer home its message somewhat it shows the impact a project like this can have on those behind bars that are willing to help themselves.
After the screening Billy Bragg and Alun Miles take some questions from the floor, here are the most interesting bits I managed to record:
Q What gave you the idea for Jail Guitar Doors?
Billy Bragg: A man called Malcolm Dudley from Guys Marsh prison sent me a letter talking about prisoners who had trouble with alcohol and drugs, and he was using his guitar classes to make connections with people. So He wrote to me asking if I had any spare guitars, coz he thought I must have loads of guitars because I’m a musician but I don’t. So I went and bought some guitars, so I went to the prison to see what he was doing, and what he was doing was really important. So we decided to try and find other people who had the same idea. We have a lot of people in prison and when the door is locked and they’re forgot about. But all those people in prison will one day come out on the streets so while they’re there we try and help them with the problems that they have that led them there. So that when they come out they don’t go back to prison because we think that’s good for them and its good for us!
Q: Wonderful film, a fantastic cause I’m just wondering if you’d want this to go mainstream?
Alun Miles: Well its gone over to America, Wayne Kramer (MC5) is now running Jail Guitar Doors USA over there.
Billy Bragg: In terms of the UK there are a number of people in the prison sector doing music therapy in prisons. But we go into specific prisons who get in touch asking for guitars and help. I’d rather rely on the patronage of people like Dave & Malcolm than relying on a government department particular as we may be having a change of government in the next few months. And I don’t want to find myself being told where I can and can’t go.
Q Something you touched on in one of your previous answers but how much cooperation did you get from the prisons, local authorities and the government when trying to make the film? How hard was it to get to film in the prisons?
Alun Miles: Filming in prisons is actually illegal with hand held recorders and by me and Billy going in we’ve actually built up the trust of the ministry of justice, but one day we tried to film and we went in. Jane(female prisoner) who you saw in the film, me and Billy went up to see her and we weren’t allowed to film, because there was a story in the Sun, that some women in Holloway had dressed up for a Halloween party and how dare they. But I rung up the ministry of justice and they let me go up and film a couple of weeks later because we were so moved by Jane. We were aware that it’s harder to get into women’s prisons but we wanted to have women represented in the film.
Billy Bragg: Every prison has a different category and a different regime, there’s only one way to work with prisons is to work with them. If you go in the way they want you to go in you can find other interesting things. We went into Dartmoor, after we’d done a bit they said to us that we could come into the wings and the venerable prisons unit, We were told that there was this really talented guy there called Leon. There are incredible pressures on our prison system both in terms of numbers and in terms of resources in terms of rehabilitation, prison isn’t just about locking people up. We have the opportunity to intervene in people’s lives.
Alot of prison officers said to me very early on in the process ‘what you’re doing is great, but if we could just ensure that everyone in prison to read and write we’d do a great public service’. At a time when public services are about to be cut the prison services are really going to feel it. On the one hand Daily mail and their supporters want people to lock people in prisons and on the other hand social services are being cut back. Not everyone who goes to prison is a criminal in the strict sense of the word, people look for help from society nobody can help them there’s only one part of our social services that can’t say no and that’s the prison services, and that’s why it ends. If we took out all the people in the prison services that could have been treated on the way then you could probably half the prison population. These people are going to come back to our society as Mark Thomas said ‘they could move in next door to you.’ I was talking earlier to our friend sat in the top row, in the foyer he was saying that someone nicked guitars from his house and he felt hard about it, I said to him the work we’re trying to do is to ensure that there is no re-offending its tough job but the people that are in the prison system trying to do that work deserve our support (applause).
Q If I put enough money in the bucket would you teach me how to play your song, ‘Man in the Iron Mask’?(audience laughs)
Billy Bragg: ’Man in the Iron Mask’ is probably one of the hardest ones to choose. But its mostly A minor, G minor and a little bit of D minor, I know minors are very popular around here. There’s probably a website you can find about it Billy Bragg play in a day?
Q What drives you to get involved in projects like this?
Alun Miles: I made a film about five years ago called ‘Who Shot The Sheriff’, which was part of the rock against racism, and we went down to Guys Marsh. And the thing that really sealed it for me was seeing the guitars being handed over in Guys Marsh and the delight on their faces and the guys there said they’d been excited for a month. You forget actually when you go to prison those things that get taken away from, people think when you go to prison you should be punished but the punishment is having your liberty taken away from you. And just watching the guys faces there when they saw Leon and Johnny and you could see that they wanted to get into it. And they were all excited about coming out and just playing perhaps play gigs in their local area.
Billy Bragg: I get asked to do stuff all the time mate I try my best to try and help as many people as I can. Very often if they’ve got a very important cause I can help them raise some money and profile and they can go off and run with it. When Malcolm Dudley’s letter came across my desk I saw there was a opportunity for myself to make a difference and as a musician knowing the power of a instrument to momentarily transcend your surroundings knowing that I felt it was something not only that I could do but something that as a musician I should do.
Why didn’t you explore the backgrounds of the prisoners in more detail in the film?
Alun Miles: What I didn’t want to do was put in much of the prisoners background, Billy and I did put the idea to other companies and they wanted to know what they were in for and other things. I really wanted to make sure that you really didn’t know unless they volunteered that information. Leon obviously mentioned a bit of his past, but I didn’t want people to watch the film then judge because obviously we’ve all got different ideas on what crimes affect different people so by putting those in the film its maybe going to put a slant.
Billy Bragg: I think it represents a failure of our society to intervene before, because like I said before a minority of them are genuinely bad people and genuinely deserve to be in prison and deserve to stay there. But for the majority of them its intriguing to look at the help they could of received before they ended up inside. Now they are in the custdady of the state, they could be helped with a little more thought a little more consideration of how they got there, the trouble is tits a one size fits all. There’s a lot of churning in the prison system, a guy where I live down in Dorchester and he ended up in three different prisons where they had guitars and he’s come out and he wants to go back in and help with those projects. But if you look at his background what messed him up was being a soldier in Bosnia, so think of what’s going to happen to those people out in Afghanistan and the responsibility we owe to them ensure that they don’t spend nine years of their life in nick, he didn’t go out there to have a laugh he went out to serve his country and subsequently his country failed him.
At the end of the film, and the Q & A, there are gratefully received live sets from Leon Walker his infectious Arctic Monkeys meets Pete Doherty acoustic ditties inspired sing longs, he has now turned his life around on the outside, going back into prisons and helping to teach those that are still behind bars. Johnny Neesom meanwhile is quite the most inventive acoustic guitar player I’ve seen play live in a long time using a series of hammer ons and tapped string harmonics to punctuate his streams of consciousness that veer from his frustration with the prison system to the desperation of his personal life, his voice is redolent of one Mike Skinner of the Streets.
Then Billy takes to the Chapter stage, apologising for his head cold he launches into a heartfelt rendition of Bob Marely’s Redemption song the first song he often plays when entering prisons as it unites everyone that listens to it and plays it. Then his voice almost cracking, Billy tells us why he now owes us (the audience) a debt of gratitude since we’ve just put £400 pounds into his Jail Guitar Doors donation bucket, then plays a passionate version of ‘I Keep Faith’ that merges almost into a soul song of heart felt sincerity, one can see why Billy cares, this isn’t just another cause for him, its not just a way of raising his own self esteem or unlike say Bono its not about boosting his own ego, its about trying to change the lives of those that can’t help themselves, those that want it. He finishes with a hilarious RBS bankers bonus’ baiting ‘Last Plane back to Abu Dabi’ replete with barbed couplets.
There we have it a long day, but a truly inspiring one, that proves that even in the midst of an apathetic disillusioned 2010, that people can make a difference that music can help people transcend barriers, and that Billy Bragg is not just a musical legend, but a bloody great bloke too. I’ll leave the last words to Billy taken from his JGD website and urge you to get involved in this inspiring campaign to change the lives of those often less fortunate than you and me:
“Since it’s inception Jail Guitar Doors has donated instruments to more than 20 prisons. The average cost per prison is less than £500, an amount which could be raised at a benefit concert by any band or artist that can draw a crowd. I’m asking musicians, particularly those of you who were inspired by the Clash, to raise funds to help inmates take the first steps towards rehabilitation. If you’d like to participate in this initiative please contact me”.