From folk to punk and back again, Billy Bragg has long been one of our most important and popular “political” songwriters. He’s even become something of an inheritor of Woody Guthrie’s mantle, made plain by his series of albums with Wilco putting Woody’s lyrics to new music—with volume three of the Mermaid Avenue series just announced this week (plus a box set and video).
My friend Kerry Candaele went to England to interview Billy for his upcoming film Following the Ninth after learning that Billy had written new lyrics for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Candaele was there when Billy with the Royal Philharmonic performed it for—the Queen. And Billy met her afterward (photo at left).
We write about this in a full chapter in our new book and e-book Journeys With Beethoven. I’ve previously posted excerpts from the book relating to Beethoven’s political and cultural influence in Pinochet’s Chile and in the Tiananmen Square uprising in China, as well as the recent Occupy protest of half a million in Madrid. Now here are excerpts from the book on the Bragg Ninth along with audio of his “Ode.” Also check out my new Roll Over, Beethoven blog.
So how did it come to this, Beethoven and Bragg on the same ticket? And as Billy put it, “What am I going to do if Beethoven finds out?” Asked in 2009 by the Southbank Centre to write a new libretto for the Ninth in English, and risking the wrath of the purists, Billy responded with typical élan, true to the sentiments of Schiller’s and Beethoven’s words but revamped for a new century. It was, in a way, the reverse of his famous and very successful Mermaid Avenue project in putting some of Woody Guthrie unpublished lyrics to music.
Others (most notably the artist, activist and polymath Paul Robeson) had sung various English versions of the “Ode To Joy,” but none had, as Billy put it American style, “taken it all the way into the ninth inning,” by not just translating the words but rewriting them. When I heard through the internet grapevine that Billy, whose music I had collected since his debut, had tackled the Ninth, I was stunned. First, here was a guy who came out of the punk tradition and he had rewritten the Ninth. Second, how strange and timely, and thus meant to be…
Billy and his wife Juliet and son Jack had just stood in the backdraft of a Ninth concert performed for the first time with a version of his words, and sung by 1500 choristers from across England. He was still floating above ground from the experience when we spoke. As Billy described the event later, “you can look at the Mona Lisa, but you can’t really embody the painting, any painting. With the Ninth it’s different, you can embody the music by recreating it, by singing it.” I knew I had to film a BBB9, and soon enough I was on a plane to London and then down to the Bragg home in Dorset on the south coast of England.