Axes Banned For UK Jailhouse Rockers
May 10, 2014

Axes Banned For U.K. Jailhouse Rockers

The nearest I ever got to being locked up was after a night out with a mate who was a prison warder. We had a few beers and a meal, then went to his Social Club inside the giant walls of Wakefield — a high security prison in Yorkshire, England — to watch a televised boxing match. It was creepy. Even sitting in the bar felt like incarceration. As a good, clean-living citizen, (I try, honest I do) I hope I never do get jailed. But I always thought that if I did, there would be one big consolation – there would be loads of time to play guitar. Not any more. The mean-minded toffs ruining (sorry, that was a typo – I should have said running) my country have banned steel-strung guitars for those who are “detained at her Majesty’s pleasure.”

Let’s face it; the association between guitars and jail is embedded in the modern brain. It seemed like every time an old prison movie would show the new inmate being shown to his new cell, he would pass some guy strumming away and singing the blues. Then there was Jailhouse Rock. The song and the film were huge hits back in 1957. It just wouldn’t be the same would it? If only nylon strung classical style guitars were allowed, there wouldn’t be much rockin’ going on. Imagine the lyrics – “Everybody in the old cell block, was playing Bach’s Partita number 1.” Naahh, it’ll never work.

There are numerous examples, too, of guitar-playing musicians who did time. My pick of these is the inimitable Bukka White who was recorded by John Lomax while serving time for an assault conviction. His brilliant moaning Parchman Farm is a gem with its deep pulsing guitar and the evocative lyrics “Judge gave me life this morning, Down on Parchman Farm….” It was written in Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known to its inmates as Parchman Farm. From Chuck Berry to Fela Kuti, from Merle Haggard to Son House, countless musicians have been locked up over the years. If they carried on making music inside, what harm could it do?

Surely music is therapy and going to help rehabilitation? The ban seems to make no sense. It was just one part of UK prison reforms last November that saw the introduction of new rules on incentives and privileges for inmates. The authorities are struggling to justify the steel string ban. The best they can come up with is this from a Prison Service spokesman: “As a result of this government’s reforms, prisoners who do not engage with their own rehabilitation now have far fewer privileges.”

The draconian rules have been attacked by a group of musicians who have campaigned to get them changed. One of the musicians, Billy Bragg, has been working for several years with his Jail Guitar Doors project to raise money to get guitars into jails. So far, he has provided around 350, mostly steel-strung. As Billy told the Guardian newspaper, he has seen first-hand the massive benefits of the project and knows of no single incident in which there has been an attack in a UK prison involving guitars. The fact that guitars are often called “axes” may have confused some crusty dimwits in the darkest recesses of government. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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