Billy Bragg is fresh from a dip in the sea, and ready to talk. Not a huge surprise—the British musician is as famous for his humourous, jagged political riffs as he is for charmingly poetic folk songs infused with genuine punk sensibility.
Now he’s ready to talk about a new project. After returning home from a show in Berlin on September 1 with Arlo Guthrie—son of Woodie, whose unheard lyrics Bragg put to music on the acclaimed Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Wilco—there was a gift waiting for him. A copy of Bragg’s first book, The Progressive Patriot—A Search For Belonging, had just arrived in the mail.
“I wrote my last album on the theme of belonging, of being English, and there were songs that addressed that issue but I realized I had a lot more to say,” Bragg says. “After 20 years of making records, I needed a bit of a challenge and things were happening that were really troubling me.”
Specifically, Bragg is deeply concerned about how his country is dealing with the aftermath of July 7, 2005, when bombs were planted in the London transit system. Since then, the British National Party, known for its right-wing, racist ideology, has been gaining popularity, winning a dozen council seats in Bragg’s hometown, Barking.
“When I play, I always finish by saying, ‘My name is Billy Bragg, and I’m from Barking, Essex,’ because I’m proud of where I come from,” he says. “But now I began to question whether I could say this. Now people would not associate Barking with me, they’d associate it with racism. It shook me, and that was really the genesis of the book.”
To understand his “own sense of English-ness,” Bragg connects historical events to his own stories. He discovered it in unlikely places—at 12 years old, hearing “Scarborough Fair” at a school assembly—“There’s a whole chapter about how two Jewish guys from Queens can make me feel English...How does that work?” he asks. “This is my culture. Why am I not hearing it growing up? Why does it take Columbia Records and the soundtrack of The Graduate to bring it to me?”
Bragg dedicates a chapter to another source—not only of his sense of Britishness, but his music, his politics and even his haircut—The Clash’s lead singer Joe Strummer, who died on December 22, 2002. “The thing about Joe is, I think he and his band were responsible for politicizing punk in Britain in a way it wasn’t in America,” he recalls of early Clash contemporaries like The Ramones and Talking Heads. “It took the vision of Joe and The Clash to bring rock around.”
The genesis of Bragg’s lifetime of political involvement was the 1978 Rock Against Racism march, where The Clash played to an audience of 80,000 in London, including the then 20-year-old Bragg. “It was crucial to who I am, my sense of belonging, my politics. Just as much as my sense of belonging comes from folk music, it comes from my politics.”
Often associated with workers’ rights and labour unions, Bragg and his guitar most iconically represented ill-treated British mineworkers during former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s reign. On one track on Live at the Barbican, he thanks national union mineworkers for standing up to Thatcher’s government during a 1984 strike, otherwise, he claims, he would be “writing songs like Sting.”
Recently Bragg made news by drawing attention to MySpace.com’s legal terms, and is now speaking out against a similar situation on another networking site. MTV Flux’s legalese basically states that they own all user-generated content. “These services are a brilliant idea. MySpace could have saved me two years of playing in horrible bars and in my bedroom if they’d been around 20 years ago, but we really do need to get some new standards,” says Bragg.
Even with a book launch to look forward to, Bragg is still an enthusiastic musician. “I’m amazed that people want to still see me play,” he says modestly. And he’s still a prolific songwriter. Last year in Boston, he wrote one during soundcheck, finished it while his road guy fetched him a curry and played it later that night. “Maybe I’ll tell you the story and play it in Halifax,” Bragg says. “It’s called the ‘Old Clash Fan’s Fight Song.’”
Billy Bragg, September 20 at Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, 8pm, $30 advance/$35 door, 494-3820