One of the most distinctive and politically infused voices of the British music scene says he hope to play in Derry during the City of Culture year.
Folk rocker and political activist Billy Bragg this week told the ‘Journal’ he would “love to be part of” Derry’s year long culture celebrations.
The folk rock politico stopped for a sojourn in Bennigan‘s bar in Derry during a two day trip to the north to promote the Jail Guitar Doors project - a programme that supports the rehabilitation of offenders through music.
Taking its name from the B-side of the Clash’s 1978 single ‘Clash City Rockers‘, the initiative has been up and running since 2007 in the UK.
Now, working in partnership with two of Derry’s most influential musicians, Happy Enchiladas Paddy Nash and Diane Greer - whose friendship has developed with Bragg over recent years - the singer songwriter is overseeing the launch of the programme in Magilligan, Maghaberry and Hydebank.
“I invited Paddy to come over to Glastonbury’s Leftfield stage last summer and we had a couple of guys from the Jail Guitar Doors Project - one from Dartmoor, one from Guys Marsh - and that kind of put the idea into Paddy and Diane’s heads ,” Bragg says.
“So when I played in Belfast last year, Paddy introduced me to Mike Maloney from the Prison Arts Foundation and he arranged for me to come over and visit the three prisons.”
Billy visited Magilligan and Maghaberry on Monday, and Hydebank on Tuesday morning. He says the response from prison authorities was overwhelmingly positive.
“Basically the programme is about getting some guitars into the prisons to assist the people already working with the prisoners.
“I supply the instruments but it’s about local musicians going in and doing the work.”
Creggan native Paddy is set to start the programme in Magilligan in June.
Bragg has little doubt as to the programme’s efficacy and is quick to counter criticism of the initiative.
“I believe in people being punished for their crimes, and am in no doubt that the punishment should fit the crime, “ he says.
“But I also believe that the punishment is in itself going to prison - the loss of liberty and dignity that accompanies a prison sentence. While they are in prison, I believe we have an opportunity to help prisoners turn their lives around.
“A lot of them are there because family, education, the system, has failed them and prison is the last place that can’t say no.”
“It makes no sense to leave them there to fester. Rather than sit back and do nothing about that, as a musician who knows and has seen how music can help people, I feel it is my duty to try and do something to help society as a whole so that they too might be able to deal with their problems in a constructive way,
“I don’t think everyone will come through the programme and become musicians but its about giving people an opportunity to express themselves in an articulate way.”
Bragg says anyone who has been to prison and “is trying to turn their lives around deserves respect.“
“Some people are more interested in a retributive system, but I am more interested in helping those who are genuinely interested in rehabilitation.”
The ‘Journal’ caught up with Billy, in the company of both Diane and Paddy, during a moment’s respite in his otherwise hectic two day trip.
While Billy took time out to chat to the ‘Journal, tea time drinkers in Bennigan‘ s also enjoyed an impromptu Bragg performance - you can watch Billy sing the Mountains of Mourne at derryjournal.com
Bragg says the City of Culture year reflects Derry’s determination to leave the past behind - and says he hopes to be a part of it.
“Connecting with Diane and Paddy has allowed me to reconnect with Derry. I’ve had a lot of good shows here in the past and I’ve always thought there’s something special about this place.
“It’s like a classic European walled city, and there’s not a lot of them about anymore.
“Obviously Derry-Londonderry‘s past is in many people minds as a troubled past, but a lot of ground has been covered since then and there seems to be a real willingness of the people to look forward rather than back.
“There are those who would drag it back but ultimately it’s the determination of the people of Northern Ireland to go into the future that is keeping that at bay.”
That connection with Diane and Paddy - Bragg discovered their song ‘Billy Bragg Jeans’ after googling himself one day - underpins his desire to be part of Derry 2013.
“Paddy’s organising a festival for 2013 here and I hope I’ll be able to come over and be part of that. It depends on a few things, but it would obviously be great to be part of the celebrations. Paddy is coming over to our local Tolpuddle festival I hope to be able to come over here, that’s what I’m hoping,” he says.
You can read more about the work of Jail Guitar Doors online