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Billy Bragg: ‘A fighter sings’

Wed, Jul 25, 2012

Billy Bragg

It would be difficult to overstate English musician Billy Bragg’s importance as a political singer-songwriter.

Over the years, Bragg has carved out a niche for himself with unapologetically leftist polemics, equal parts Woody Guthrie and the Clash’s Joe Strummer.

It came as a surprise, then, when Bragg admitted during his Old Town School of Folk Music songwriting workshop June 23 that he doesn’t think music can change the world. “Changing the world is about going to your local Labour Party branch meetings and voting in favor of old people getting paid money to get them through the winter,” Bragg explained. “That’s changing the world. It’s not singing gigs and coming together and doing fabulous concerts with a big picture of Che Guevara. I wish it was, but it’s not.”

Contrast that with Bragg’s recently released Fight Songs, less an album than a selection of op-ed pieces set to chords, written sporadically over the last 10 years. Bragg is obviously no hypocrite, nor is he interested in exercises in futility, so why is he still releasing political songs? For that matter, why did he even start? To understand, we’ll need to examine his first taste of musical polemics.

It would be tempting to state, at this point, that it all started with the Clash in the 1970s. While Bragg’s early music drew most visibly (and, of course, audibly) from punk, his first experience with political music is less obvious — Motown.

“I listened to a lot of Black American soul music from the 1960s, and if you listen to that music, even if you are ultimately getting your high from [Smokey Robinson’s] The Tracks of My Tears, you’re also going to pick up stuff like People Get Ready,” he admits. He followed up on this, explaining that despite living in a one-party town, he picked up liberal politics from just this kind of music. A listener could certainly do the same from Bragg’s music. But why, we have to ask, the focus on the politics?

This is where The Clash comes in: When other bands of the ’70s simply embraced nihilism for its own sake, they picked specific causes. We couldn’t completely ignore them in any event; they become relevant when we begin talking about political music at all. From their first album, they used overdriven guitars and a punk snarl to address issues from international politics to police corruption. Bragg recounted to the Old Town School audience the story of his trip to Rock Against Racism (a series of benefit concerts to organize English youth against bigotry in 1978, headlined by The Clash) and how it gave him the courage to confront racism in those around him. Bragg wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for the music, but it was the energy and the crowd that made the biggest impression. He couldn’t have known, at this point, that six years later his album Brewing Up with Billy Bragg would stand as a challenge to Thatcherism and the Falkland War, and inspire another generation of young protesters.

Even now, he told the Old Town School audience his motive is to “charge you up with the urge to change the world, and send you out there thinking, ‘you know what? Bragg is right. I’ve got to go out there, I’ve got to fight my own cynicism, and I’ve got to remain engaged.’”

True enough, looking over Billy Bragg’s discography, there’s no evidence that he has a desire to do anything other than inspire his listeners. With this in mind, we can get at the heart of what makes music and politics go together like nutella and bananas.

In one of Bragg’s most recent crop of songs, Old Clash Fan Fight Song, he cheekily sandwiches his own name between The Clash (if not the first punk band to sing about the Spanish Civil War, certainly the one that first got other bands thinking it was a thing to do) and Green Day (if not the first punk band to sing about propaganda’s dehumanizing effect, certainly the first to sell 14 million records in the process).
Bragg compared himself to a journalist: “The whole point of writing political songs is that if you think you’ve got a perspective that nobody else has got,” he argued. He explained with a nonpolitical example — a song about the sinking of the Titanic from the iceberg’s perspective that got him a spot on the BBC’s telecast around the April centennial of the event.

“Music engages us in a different way,” he mused at one point. “I think it’s a more personal thing.”
The personal approach has served Bragg well – this is what has allowed him to humanize those he sings about. When he sings “I was a miner; I was a docker” on Between the Wars, we know the most important words in the sentence are not the professions he claims to have had, but those two “I”s. He was both a miner and a docker, while writing the song, at least. And having been there, he can tell us about it.

After a career spanning more than 30 years, Bragg has no illusions about relevance. Fight Songs contains songs from the past 10 years, and as such, is occasionally out of date. A song called Bush War Blues feels like an anachronism now that Bush and Blair warm the seats of power no more. Still, Bragg has reached a point in his career where he could very comfortably rest on his laurels, and this album contains numerous moments that highlight his refusal to do so. Never Buy The Sun, for example, is ripped straight from the headlines, taking News Corp. to task for its role in both the phone hacking scandal and the publishing of mind-numbing tabloids. What makes the song unique to Bragg, however, is that it manages to look back to The Sun’s sensational and irresponsible coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster (a human crush that resulted in the deaths of 95 people at a soccer game) and use it as an “I told you so” chorus. This, it seems, is the Billy Bragg perspective: looking back to look forward.

If this sounds like an unpopular choice for a songwriting method in the 21st century, it should. Bragg recognizes as well as we do that “we shouldn’t measure our younger generation by how many political songs they write but by how engaged they are.”

Judging by the Occupy movement, we certainly have an engaged generation. The question is what forms this engagement will take in the future, and whether it will include the protest song. As Bragg told the audience, “you have so many options available now in the digital age … when I was 16, the only medium that I had any access to was this.” He motioned to his guitar.

Whether social media, in paving the way to new forms of expression, has paved right over political songwriting or not, one thing is certain — as long as Bragg can hold a guitar and carry a tune, it will be an art that still has a place somewhere in the world.

Duncan Reilly, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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