The Billy Bragg show

Musician and activist talks about new music, guitars for convicts and being political

William Bloke kicks off his U.S. tour in Chico.

William Bloke kicks off his U.S. tour in Chico.

photo courtesy of ANTI Records

While thinking of a way to honor Joe Strummer on the fifth anniversary of his death, Billy Bragg figured the last thing the world needed was another cover of “London Calling.”

“In 2007, I was looking for something to do other than another tribute gig with people playing the old songs and feeling sorry for the old days,” said the musician and activist by phone from Glasgow, Scotland. “I wanted to do something that threw the ideas forward.”

A letter from a man who was using guitar classes to help rehabilitate prisoners and his own respect for Clash singer Strummer prompted Bragg to form Jail Guitar Doors. The program—which takes its name from a Clash song—donates and distributes acoustic guitars to prisoners, and is the reason he’s traveling around Scotland days before a U.S. tour that kicks off Oct. 28 at the El Rey Theatre in Chico.

“Over the next three days I’ll be visiting half a dozen prisons in Scotland to donate acoustic guitars for use of rehabilitation of inmates. Jail Guitar Doors seemed to be the sort of thing that, as a musician, I should be doing and as a musician Joe might have been doing.”

Bragg said the program has distributed guitars in 35 prisons in the United Kingdom. It’s also attracted participation from other musicians—including Strummer’s old band mate Mick Jones—and gone international.

“Some of the guys in our original programs are out now and doing gigs with us,” Bragg said. “I was in Manchester week before last with a couple of lads [Jonny Neesom and Leon Walker].”

Bragg has been mixing activism and music since the late-’70s, and has supported election drives against conservative candidates, as well as for granting Scotland its independence and various other social initiatives. Earlier this year, he threatened to withhold paying income tax to protest the Royal Bank of Scotland’s intention to pay 1.5 billion pounds in executive bonuses.

Bragg’s repertoire, however, consists of as many or more songs about love and longing as those about politics. He said that people often develop a skewed view of him and other politically active artists.

“I think some people expect to come to the gigs and get a bit of a political lecture,” he said, “but I don’t really do those kind of gigs. I have points I want to make, but really, it’s ultimately about entertaining people. So the way I put my ideas across, I use humor, I use irony. It’s more like the Jon Stewart show than a lecture on Marxism.

“I think the most important thing if you’re going to be an activist is to have a proper life. Politics isn’t everything. It’s important but it’s not the end of doing everything else. You have to have a much broader hinterland than that really. So I’m political when I need to be, but most of the time I’m getting on with the other things I’m interested in.”

One of those interests is collaborating with other artists live and on record, which he did perhaps most famously with Wilco on 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, which tasked Bragg and Wilco to write music for unfinished Woody Guthrie songs. The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album and was followed up with Volume II in 2000.

The list of other artists he’s worked with includes Natalie Merchant, Johnny Marr, Kate Nash and many more.

“Right now, I’m working on an album with Joe Henry and Roseanne Cash,” Bragg said. “That’s the next record I’ll be putting out. We did some shows together a couple years ago at Joe’s invitation, and we kind of hit it off pretty well, so since then we’ve been trying to get together and work it all out then take it into the studio, and we’re finally doing it next month.”