Quantcast

Singing to Power | The Nation

  •  

Singing to Power

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement. The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra), "NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and, perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock concerts.

About the Author

Hillary Frey
Hillary Frey, a former Nation editor, is the Books editor at Salon.com.

Also by the Author

Travistan will keep kids asking questions about music, politics and life.

A star is on the rise for Death Cab for Cutie. The Seattle-based indie band's last record, Transatlanticism (Barsuk), has sold just over 184,000 copies.

HF:

I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their way into your music?

BB:

When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983 and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing for ordinary people.

Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard "Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to articulate.

HF:

You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF] met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing something active and participatory you would organize your local McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice movement?

BB:

I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing. The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by smashing up fast-food joints.

My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world. It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors, living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted in labor organizing.

HF:

How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?

BB:

I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like the United States, where not only are the politics very different from the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.

HF:

I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored by a union.

BB:

I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the GMB, which is one of our general unions.

HF:

I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in the United States.

BB:

I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together. The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.

How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job? Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive ideas of what a union is?

HF:

Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded, with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and recording his words?

BB:

Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why [Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere. Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement, Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole ideological struggle really going on in the USA.

HF:

There must have been tons of stuff in the Guthrie archive. How did you select which lyrics to put to music?

BB:

You go in a bookshop and there are tons of books in there, but you still manage to find the ones that interest you, don't you? It was the same sort of process--you look at a load of stuff and some of it draws you in. But let me tell you that there's so much stuff there that you could make a completely different selection. And I became very aware of this when I tried to play some of them to my audience and I thought I'd written them. Maybe it's my fault for choosing a song that goes "All you fascists are bound to lose"--sounds like a Clash song, doesn't it?

It became paramount to me to involve the guys from Wilco: Jeff Tweedy, Jay Bennett. And not only to involve them but to send them to the archive and get them to choose their own songs and put their own stamp on the records.

HF:

My favorite song is the last one on the first record, "The Unwelcome Guest."

BB:

Isn't that a great song? I'm so pleased because that's the one that me and Jeff got to sing together on.

HF:

You sound great together.

BB:

We do, don't we? We really do. And I liked that, because the songs we chose were very personal. The deal was whoever wrote the music sang the song, which is fair enough. But there's one song on there that's called "Another Man's Done Gone," which I wrote the music for but Jeff sang. And the reason for that is that it all happened in about two hours--from Nora bringing it when she came to Dublin to the sessions, to me seeing it to writing the chords to teaching them to Jay Bennett to play on the piano, which woke Jeff up--he came and began singing the lyrics to the melody. And I realized that he was investing it with so much feeling, and relating to it with so much of his self, that I was just going to be the guy who wrote the song instead of the guy who sang it.

That moment itself, I think, was the closest we came to touching base with Woody. When Jeff sings the line, "I don't know/I may go/Down or up or anyway/ But I feel like this scribbling will stay," that's what me and Jeff and Wilco and Nora were all there about proving--that Woody still had something to say, that his scribblings were worthwhile, they weren't just the lost scribblings of someone no one cared about. It was one of those projects that transcends just a bunch of guys playing.

HF:

Is it harder to write political music now than it was when you started?

BB:

It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the 1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England, Half English, it's personal--it means different things to different people.

HF:

But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to. The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.

BB:

The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever seen on the left before.

I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there, in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure I must be hitting some bases.

***

England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size