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Billy Bragg reflects on Woody Guthrie, the joy of Marmite, and choosing between Trump and Thatcher

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Billy Bragg, Thursday, Oct. 12, 8 p.m., Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder; 303/786-7030, bouldertheater.com - CLIVE CHILVERS /SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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  • Billy Bragg, Thursday, Oct. 12, 8 p.m., Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder; 303/786-7030, bouldertheater.com
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hen it comes to protest singers who've stayed the course, Billy Bragg is a tough act to follow. A singer-songwriter who grew up in a working-class London suburb, he was drawn to music and politics by The Clash and Rock Against Racism concerts. By the time of the mid-'80s UK miners' strike, he'd become a fixture at leftist rallies, performing his stirring, sentimental and sometimes hilariously sincere songs with a heavy Cockney accent and what he likes to call "chop and clang" electric guitar accompaniment.

Bragg's other primary influence is Woody Guthrie, the legendary writer of songs like "This Land Is Your Land," whose guitar was famously adorned with a sticker that read "This Machine Kills Fascists." When Guthrie's daughter Nora was looking for someone to set her father's unfinished songs to music, she chose Bragg, who in turn recruited Wilco to go into the studio and record them with him.

Onstage, Bragg can now draw upon a repertoire that includes signature songs like "Take Down the Union Jack," "A New England," and his recently released single, "The Times They Are A-Changing Back." We caught up with him to talk about Trump and Thatcher, Woody and Wilco, his monthly release of online singles, and his new book How Skiffle Changed the World.

Indy: I'd like to start off with a very current question. Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, was on TV last night talking about the "taking a knee" controversy, and he said, "We need to give ourselves the opportunity to hear each other's side." What do you think it will take for people to actually do that?

Billy Bragg: I think you'll need to recognize that there is more than one type of patriotism, in the sense that Woody Guthrie was a patriot, and Rosa Parks was a patriot, and Colin Kaepernick is a patriot. In my country, our flag is used by the far right to intimidate my neighbors. Well, I'm sorry, that's not acceptable. You know, either the flag belongs to all of us, or it belongs to none of us. And the way that people have tried to enforce the response to the national anthem suggests, to me, that they just don't understand that there are other ways of embodying the rights that are guaranteed to every American citizen in the Constitution.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore played a cover of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee" when he came through here a few months ago, and it was heartbreaking to realize how relevant that song remains more than 50 years after it was written. Do you remember how you felt when you first heard that song?

Yeah, I do. I heard Arlo singing it on one of his early albums in the '70s and I thought it was a brilliant, brilliant song. It wouldn't take much tweaking with that song — and I have thought about it — to make it about the people who are trying to get across the Mediterranean into Europe. It's the same sort of thing, you know, people dying on those boats and the radio saying they're just refugees, they have no names, they have no documents.

When you and Wilco put his unfinished lyrics to music, how true to his musical style were you trying to be?

Well, being true to his music wasn't the remit I was given by [Guthrie's daughter] Nora. You know, early on I found a couple of songs that were classic Woody Guthrie songs, and I put a classic Woody Guthrie tune on them, and she was like, "Naaaah, we got some of those." So basically, when me and Wilco were in the studio, our point of reference was [Bob Dylan and The Band's album] The Basement Tapes. Not in terms of the sonic shape of the record, but if you've heard the whole of The Basement Tapes, quite a large part of it is them playing old-timey songs. But they're playing them in a way that lets you know they've heard Little Richard, and they've heard The Impressions, and they're playing them through that prism. So what we wanted to do was take Woody and let people know that we've heard The Clash, and that we've heard Creedence, and we've heard Tom Waits. So rather than trying to go back to Woody's time, we were trying to bring Woody into ours.

Let's talk about your book on skiffle. How did you come across that music?

Well, I was born in 1957, so it wasn't something that I grew up listening to. But one of the first records I bought was a TV-advertised album, Ronco's 20 Golden Greats, or something like that. It was all sort of '50s American rock and rock 'n' roll, but there was one track on there by Lonnie Donegan called "Cumberand Gap." And I remember thinking, "I don't know what this shit is, but it ain't rock 'n' roll." It wasn't even electric, it was acoustic, and it was only two chords. It was like a folk song, but it was really primal.

Unfortunately, his biggest hit was actually a dreadful song called "My Old Man's a Dustman," and by that time he'd stopped playing skiffle and started singing novelty songs. Which is cool, I mean, you got to understand, Donegan was like Elvis. So just as Elvis went off to make dreadful movies and play Las Vegas, so Donegan went onto the vaudeville circuit and, weirdly, ended up living in Lake Tahoe, just like Elvis.

How do you feel about that kind of thing? There are people who complain that Lou Reed started doing motor scooter commercials and stopped making great albums. But I always figure that, hey, if you do music that changes people's lives, then you've earned the right to do whatever you want after that.

Yeah, I think, in the end, you got to keep yourself interested. As a performer, I really learned a lot from watching Bob Dylan, because he played "Wiggle Wiggle" with the same sort of determination that he played "Blowin' in the Wind." It was almost as if he was daring the fans down the front, who worship him, to say, "Oh, for fuck's sake, stop!"

I also think, particularly now that you don't make money from records anymore, about Johnny Marr letting [retail chain] John Lewis use the Smith's "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" for their Christmas advert. If you make enough money out of that to re-launch your solo career — which I think he did — then good luck to him. Because I know Johnny Rotten made enough money from that butter advert to put Public Image back on the road.

So if you were to make an advert, what product would it be for?

Well, it would have to be for something like Marmite. Do you know what Marmite is?

Oh God, I can't stand it.

Yeah. Well, the thing about Marmite is you either really love it or you really hate it, okay? And people have said over the years that I'm a Marmite artist. And so I'm totally cool with that, because I fucking love Marmite.

Tell me about "The Times They Are A-Changing Back," "Why We Build the Wall" and "Sleep of Reason." What's your reason for releasing them as singles online?

Well basically, last year I found myself every week or so writing a 600-word diatribe on Facebook, and I suddenly thought, "You know, I used to write songs instead of doing this. Why don't I take the fucking energy from these Facebook diatribes and go back to writing songs?" So I committed myself to putting out six tracks, which I really was just going to make available as free downloads. But then the record company wanted to get involved, so it all got a little bit more serious than maybe it should be. And we're going to compile them all onto a six-track CD to sell on tour. If you're an independent artist like I am, it takes a lot of blood and treasure to put an album out these days, and I just haven't got the wherewithal to do that at the moment.

Here is a question I never thought I'd ask anyone, but...

Uh-oh, I'm not sure about this. Hang on a minute, let me get my lawyer on the line.

I think it'll be okay. Who is worse, Thatcher or Trump?

I think Trump is worse...

Really?

Because with Thatcher, you knew exactly where she stood. In many ways you didn't like it, but you could see where she was coming from, where she was going and what she was trying to achieve. With Trump, there is no grounding in veracity. He can say one thing one day, and do exactly the opposite the next.

So I hate to say this about her, but she really was a radical, and she has strong principles and she upheld them. I was opposed to her, but she unified the country around what she was trying to do. Trump is doing the absolute opposite of that. He's taking every opportunity he can to divide people.

And finally, I'd like to do a lightning round. Do you know what that is from quiz shows?

I do, indeed.

So maybe you can give me a sentence or two on some fellow radical musicians.

I'll do my best.

Linton Kwesi Johnson.

A giant. Really articulate in the experience of black British youth during punk, and in a very powerful way.

The Clash, of course.

Well, you know, The Clash are the catalyst for everything, aren't they? If it hadn't been for The Clash, punk would just have been about bondage trousers and a wacky hair cut.

Robert Wyatt?

Robert Wyatt. Well, Robert brings both jazz and the radical Communist tradition to pop music. Not in a hectoring way, but in a wonderfully benign way. He's a sweet person and a genuine radical, someone who has stuck to his guns and made great political art, you know?

And finally, Phil Ochs.

Phil Ochs is a lesson to all political songwriters. And the lesson is: Do not imagine that the failure of music to change the world is your fault. Phil did everything he possibly could to try and change the world, and when it didn't work, he took it personally. He wasn't able to separate himself from the struggle, and ultimately he paid for it with his life.

I still encounter young activist singers who say to me, "I've been singing these songs but I still haven't managed to change the world." And I have to sort of put my arm around them and say, "Listen, son, I've got to tell you something. Woody's guitar didn't actually kill fascists, alright? What it did was it inspired people to join the anti-fascist movement. We're not the remedy, we don't have agency. We're the people who put that idea out there. You got to understand that. You mustn't expect that you can write this song and that will happen. It don't work like that."


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