Sunday, 1 November 2009

Jail Guitar Doors

Occasionally among the countless gigs, long journeys, delayed flights and repetitive days of bitter disappointment and frustration, there are exceptional moments which shine like gold in the river mud. Days which take you out of yourself, remind you of your good fortune and help you to treasure the things that are so often taken for granted. There isn't going to be the usual bathos or failed witticism at this point, just a rare instance of sincerity.

A few weeks ago I was invited to play a few songs for some inmates at a Young Offenders Institute in Wetherby, Yorkshire (alright, insert your captive audience gags here if you must but let's move on swiftly) as part of the Jail Guitar Doors scheme, by which prisoners and young offenders are given access to guitars, as a means of self-expression, self-respect and rehabilitation. You can read up on the scheme by clicking the link, it was set up by one of my heroes, Billy Bragg, to honour the memory of one of his, Joe Strummer.

When you're asked to do something like that, it doesn't take a second to say yes and how soon? Music means more than the X Factor and its evil twins (I mean similar shows, not the current Frankenstein's monster that is Jedward), and it has a much more vibrant place in life than the clogged I-pod or bored Guitar Hero would currently suggest.

Music is at it's most visceral and raw when it's played by people solely for their own amusement, as they come to grips with learning an instrument, or jamming alongside other people for the first time. So seeing these teenagers play their own songs, after they'd politely sat through mine and even performed their own version of How The West Was Won, (complete with additional middle 8 rap) - is easily one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life to date. It's not a good look, by the way, for a 40 yr old to be choking back the tears listening to his own song performed by a bunch of teenagers in the recreation area of a Yorkshire prison, so that's something else I've learned.

I played a few songs, we talked about songwriting, they played some recordings they'd made, questions were asked from both sides, and I was given a tour of the prison by my amazing hosts. More of them later. And for any Daily Mail readers who may have strayed here, it is a prison. The cells are small, the doors are locked and there are bars on the window. It's not a holiday camp funded by the tax payer. It exists for a reason, but Wetherby also wants to give these kids (for kids they are) a chance at something more. Music may not be the most practical of careers these days, but anything that makes you more self-aware and self-confident informs every other aspect of your life, as well as having the more immediate rewards of having made something from nothing, carved sound from silence.

Whatever it has become for me over the years, this was reaffirmation of what music is in it's most basic form. It's the perfect way to express the inexpressible. And if you think that sounds like the worst solecism, you have clearly never sung at the top of your voice or tried to wring a tune out of an instrument by sheer force of will.

I can only tell you what I got from the experience, I'm not about to speak on behalf of the inmates. I hope they got something from it. They're inside for many reasons, none of them my business, and whatever solace can be gained from playing guitar, or perspective achieved from writing a song, I hope it's theirs for the taking. But they gave me something, and they re-ignited something inside me, a pure passion just for playing, just for hearing the notes, just for feeling the strings under your fingers - no other outcome attached, no expectation, and no reward other than sound.

Thanks then to Stephen Bielby and the staff who took great care of me, and whose dedication has meant that music classes are now an every day part of life at the prison. It's people like this that you rarely read about in the press, we only get the horror stories, not the news of good people, doing good things every day to improve the lives of others. And giving young offenders a chance at something more than a life of crime may not be the most glamorous profession, but that day, with those lads felt like the most rock and roll thing I've ever done.

P.S And those of you who came to the show in Sheffield the other day, your ticket money contributed to buying 6 more guitars for the scheme. So thank you.


  1. Nice article and music is at its best when raw and a representation of the self, too often lost inside. Music like all creativity is an important form of expression of working out where we are and where to go. This scheme can only help, offering a hand that the daily mail and no doubt others would be quick to pull away. One for all the bedroom singers and players.

  2. I'm happy to hear that you had a fruitful and wonderful experience.
    And I also wish the music gives young offenders a hope and strength to live or something like that(I can't explain well...).
    ...I wanna hear their own version How The West Was Won so much;)

  3. I imagine you're going to write your own Folton version of "Folsom Prison" now...?

    Great idea by the way (the scheme, not my prison song suggestion).

  4. The best things you've said since I started reading your blog. Much as we love you for your cynical nature, sometimes it's great to read your true passion about the essence of music and why we love it.

  5. I'm with Jem.

    I suppose the likelihood is that most, if not all, of the youngsters you met that day have had a rotten childhood, involving varying degrees of emotional, psychological and physical abuse. For some of them, the experience of making music, on their own and with others, could be subtly yet profoundly life changing. As you say, 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one sings'.

    Inspiring stuff.

  6. Wonderful Tom. You capture the joy of someone sharing that jamming experience so well. Making music purely for enjoyment.

  7. so glad that you've had the opportunity to be involved in a project like this and that the project was smart enough to invite you!

  8. A noble act and I am pleased you got something out of it.
    I'm sure the inmates got a lot out of it too.

    Good man Tom.

  9. This sounds like a fantastic scheme and thanks for highlighting it.

    I wonder if similar schemes could be extended to mental hospitals (sadly, so often more similar to prisons than hospitals). Another place where music could really make a difference.

  10. I highly agree with intothesystem on this one!

  11. Nice one Tom. Read a lot about this from Billy.

  12. Hi Tom,
    I follow your career since your eponymous album and had the chance to see you twice in Paris including at the Olympia. I've always been deeply touched by your voice, words and the passion delivered through your songs.
    Now I discover more of your personalty thanks to your blog I must say I am totally fond of the man you are, not only the artist. Keep on being the true passionate, generous and "sometimes" cynical =) man we love, and please come & see me in the French Riviera...there are nice scenes there too ;)
    See you in a gig soon!

  13. hi Tom, just want to say it was a great pleasure to have you with us at wetherby, and your welcome to stop by anytime you want. just to update you on some things, after you left the lads really drove on and have come out with some mind blowing stuff, they all buzzed of your visit and told steve, jamie and i you gave them the push they needed not to give up. like you said this is a jail, and none of us are there to judge thats up to the courts, but we are there to try and make a difference, like i said to you if one person changes his ways it will affect a whole larger circle!! prison officers of old that used to just shout and turn keys are a thing of the past, we need to stop people re-offending and if that means we give them a new hobby or passion so be it. its people like you tom that make these lads realise its not all about sex, drugs and violence and that reflects in there writing. when we started it was the usual gang stuff but now its about family life, trying to make things better, and the big one remorse!! if we can just change the way they think than maybe just maybe they will change the way they act! Tom your a true gent and a top bloke. p.s i promise to clean my car out next time we meet!!!

  14. Hello, I just happened here now, and happened upon an old post too, but it gave me shivers of soulfulness and optimism in people ...what a wonderful project, really. Music is definitely one of the most powerful tools and keys, that I really believe can make fundamental differences when people have the good fortune of being able to access it... Thanks ever so much for posting up about this. I'm sure it'll have been a day that they will never forget either.


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