Healing with music

Kerri Breen
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Music Billy Bragg teaches families how to cope with cancer; donates guitars to prisons

Billy Bragg says the Queen of England herself came to one of his gigs last year and stuck around to shake his hand and get his autograph.

He has released a book, not to mention 13 albums in the last 25 years. The British singer-songwriter, playing in St. John's Nov. 14, was even commissioned to write lyrics for Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Billy Bragg. Submitted Photo

Billy Bragg says the Queen of England herself came to one of his gigs last year and stuck around to shake his hand and get his autograph.

He has released a book, not to mention 13 albums in the last 25 years. The British singer-songwriter, playing in St. John's Nov. 14, was even commissioned to write lyrics for Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

But of all the things he's done, Bragg is most proud of the days he spent teaching terminal breast cancer patients how to write songs.

"On the face of it, it didn't seem like a very constructive thing to do," he said.

"But sitting down with these women talking about songwriting, I was able to help them to say to their families the things that they couldn't say around the dinner table in the evening, which was basically, 'I love you, but I'm not always going to be here.'"

He says it made a difference to them, and four or five years later, people are still coming up to him and talking about the record that came out of the patients' work.

Bragg is known for his social activism almost as much as his music. The struggle for equality has always been at the forefront of his songwriting and other work. In itself, being known as a political songwriter doesn't bother him, but it leads people to assume he can't produce anything new.

"People think they know everything about me and what I think and what I'll say, and I'm constantly trying to think of ways to challenge that."

His latest album, "Mr. Love and Justice," consists of roughly half love songs and half political pieces. Bragg said this emotional element has always been there in his music, but it's more prominent on this album because it was written after he spent three years writing a political book.

"The songs that appeared when I sat down to write were all love songs."

His solo set in St. John's at Holy Heart Theatre will include some of this new material as well as songs from his older albums.

"When I get to St. John's I'll be shaping my set, trying to work out what makes sense in Canada. It might take me a couple of shows to get my head around that."

He last played in the city in 2001, but hasn't been able to get back since. Among his new projects is a charity called Jail Guitar Doors, named after a song by the Clash.

The organization, set up in 2007, has donated guitars to 20 prisons so prisoners can be taught as a means of rehabilitation.

Bragg said they develop confidence and self-worth through performing and songwriting.

"Low self-esteem in offenders plays a very strong part in re-offending."

Similarly, Bragg said he uses music to deal with the frustrations he has with the world. "It's not just a job," he said. "It does have a therapeutic effect and that can be taught to people."

kbreen@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Holy Heart Theatre, Clash

Geographic location: St. John's, Canada

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