Transforming The Lives Of Inmates Through The Power Of Rock & Roll

Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicates and does all these incredible things.

-Tom Petty

My father doesn’t have a lot of happy memories from growing up. Williamsburg, Brooklyn wasn’t a hipster paradise in the 1950’s, it was a place where he got shot at on the playground, where gangs ruled, and where racial tensions often turned violent. My dad smoked a pack a day by 11, and, while he avoided the gang life that claimed some of his older brothers, was addicted to hard drugs by the time he was 14.

But there’s one idyllic part of my dad’s early years that he talks about with a smile: music. No matter what else was going on, he and his brothers would sing doo wop on the corner — their voices blending in harmony. Hearing his stories, I truly believe that, on many occasions, music saved my father’s life. When pain and drugs and crime surrounded him, music brought the beauty of the world back into focus, centered him, and gave him joy.

That’s what music does, and the power it has to transform and save lives. It gives voice to the voiceless.

Nobody knows that better than legendary guitarist and founder of the band MC5, Wayne Kramer. He’s also the co-founder of the American branch of Jail Guitar Doors, an organization founded by Billy Bragg in the UK to bring instruments and music classes to prison inmates.

“What art can do is it can restore you,” the punk legend tells Uproxx, “it can restore you in your relationships with other people in the world.”

Art, Kramer continues, restores your relationship to the outside world, your family, your friends, and your community. “Those are the things that prisons strip away from you,” he says.

Kramer knows exactly how prison can strip away who you are. He’s been there. In fact, Jail Guitar Doors takes its name from a 1977 song by The Clash of the same name — the song’s lyrics include a line about Kramer and his “deals of cocaine.”