Why do folks go to SXSW?

Film, music, interactive– the festival is broken up into different portions so you can select when to show up based on what you want to spend your time doing. No matter when you go, there are parties aplenty and there’s even a real life Mario Kart!

Sally Kohn?

Well she made her way to Texas to go to jail. In a fascinating op-ed written for CNN, the progressive activist takes us into her experience with a program called Jail Guitar Doors at Travis County Correctional Complex.

The organization was inspired by The Clash song of the same name written about fellow musician, and co-founder of rock group MC5, Wayne Kramer. As the song opens:

Let me tell you ’bout Wayne

and his deals of Cocaine

A little more every day

Holding for a friend till the band do well

Then the D.E.A. locked him away

Wayne spent 2 years in prison where he rediscovered music seeing it as a means of “self-improvement.” In the years that followed, he sought out ways to use music to help inmates. In 2007, he teamed up with English Singer songwriter Billy Bragg, after learning that Bragg was already running a similar program in the UK, to found the organization Jail Guitar Doors. According to their mission statement, the group is focused on “providing musical instruments and opportunities to rehabilitate prisoners.”

Kohn took a lesson with the inmates of Travis County Correctional Complex through the program and walked away knowing how to play the G chord and write some songs. In her Op-Ed she touches on being at the facility with SXSW occurring miles away.

From what I can tell, people mostly just spend a lot of time waiting in line and partying, throngs of music fans spilling over into the street in search of entertainment. But the class at the Travis County jail reminds us that music is more than just entertainment. It’s power. The power to transform someone’s life, the power to transform a system.

She later quotes an inmate who describes music as an escape and a form of self discovery:

It reminds us there’s life outside, there’s something more than these walls to be a part of.

Krammer is living proof of the values he espouses and the promise of leveraging music towards a better life. While Kohn spent time in prison, Krammer actually spent time at SXSW teaming up with organizers of the festival to help coordinate a concert unveiling the new Jimi Hendrix postage stamp.

His story is proof positive of the power of music.

Talking to the AP and via a Spin Magazine interview from 201,2 Krammer touched on his hopes for the program:

There are some people who aren’t going to change, aren’t interested in changing and need to be locked up. I would put it at maybe 15 percent. But that leaves 85 percent… I figure if maybe I can get a guitar in a kid’s hand he can start to see himself as more than just a kid from the ‘hood in trouble.

It’s a really inspiring story.

Music makes us dance and gives us a reason to flock to Austin or wherever else, but it also changes lives and helps get us through the worst of times. The power of music can’t be understated and for those who have witnessed its impact in their own lives, it can’t be quantified.

Music is big.

You can check out Wayne Kramer’s remarks for Chicago Ideas Week to hear more about the organization and the impact music has had on his life.