Singing to Power
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. A longer version of this interview appears on The
Nation's website (www.thenation.com).
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
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
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: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
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
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.