August 29th, 2009 | Interviews

shea M gauer

Download: Billy Bragg “O Freedom”


(from Mr. Love And Justice out now on Anti)

Billy Bragg has been mixing pop and politics and hoping to save the youth of America since he started out as ‘one-man Clash’ in 1977. After projects with Wilco and Woody Guthrie, he will present the U.S. premiere of his vocal version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’ in Santa Monica. This interview by Dan Collins.

You were one of the first musicians I remember being outspoken about gay rights. The first time I heard your music was 1991—I was really young and I turned on MTV in Oklahoma and saw the video for ‘Sexuality,’ where you had that lyric ‘If you’re gay, I won’t turn you away.’ At the time I thought it was totally icky and gross…
Ha ha—it kind of is icky and gross, but in a nice way! You have to talk about these things, particularly back then when the first notions people had about HIV and AIDS was that you get it from talking to gay people. And it was an awful time when the disease first came to prominence. So that was a message I thought very strongly that I had to put out.
Do you think songs like that actually change people’s minds?
You’ve got to hope. What I’m basically trying to do is give people a different perspective, whether I’m writing a love song or a political song or a song that’s a bit of both. And you’ve got to hope that they will build on that perspective—that the perspective will challenge their own worldview enough to explore a little bit about what you’re talking about. Things that may initially sound a bit icky may years later make sense to them. That’s the way music has affected my life. The music hasn’t itself changed my life, but the ideas it’s given to me have led me to form my own opinions about things.
You seem equally at home writing about the personal and the political. Are there songs where you think you achieved both?
Yeah! There’s a song on my most recent album called ‘I Keep Faith.’ When I perform in front of an audience, I talk to the audience about my faith in their ability to change the world. I feel very strongly that singer/songwriters CAN’T change the world, and that ultimately the responsibility lies with the audience. And ‘I Keep Faith’ allows me to put that idea in front of the audience. But if my son comes to the concert, and while I’m saying this to the audience, he says to my wife—his mum—‘Mum, why doesn’t Dad just tell everybody this is about you?’ Then she has to say to him, ‘Well, it is about me, but it is also about what Dad is talking about. It’s about both of these things.’ I think the best political songs are also love songs, and the best love songs also have that urge to make a difference.
I was thinking about that after the death of Michael Jackson. The Minutemen had a song in the ’80s called ‘Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing.’
A great band! A great band! Much much missed!
Agreed! But in Michael Jackson’s mind, he probably thought of himself as a political songwriter. After all, he did ‘We Are the World’ and ‘Black or White.’
I have no problem with someone like Michael Jackson writing a political song, but they need to then come up with the actions to match that. People have to walk it like they talk it, and that’s the bottom line. Otherwise you’re just exploiting that situation for your own material gain. When I hear a political song, I always look for the actions that go along with that.
Your 2002 album, England, Half-English, is very powerful and one of my favorites. There is that sense of nationalism. But I wonder, isn’t there a danger in nationalism as well? Doesn’t it lead to tariffs and wars and hate?
The reason I made that album is because the far-right were beginning to pick up seats. And for all the worry that we have talking about nationalism, if we don’t talk about it, then we leave it to the fascists and the racists to define who does and who doesn’t belong. For better or for worse, the country I live in is called England. I was born here. I speak English. Why should I have to deny that just because a bunch of racist thugs have abused the name of the country? We need to take these things back, although as you said before, some people may—when they first hear it—find it a bit icky. I’m not joking! Some of my own fans initially didn’t feel comfortable with me talking about these things. But I spent time explaining where I was coming from—in fact, I wrote a book about it, ultimately.
In the United States, a lot of lefties like myself have big problems with the way we have treated African Americans and Native Americans and immigrants in the past. But we do have reverence for our founding fathers, despite their faults. Is there an era of English history where you look back like that?
Same era, really. It’s around that time that we chopped off the king’s head and began to have a different kind of idea about how our country should be governed. The period we refer to as the Civil War in the 1640s was actually a period of revolution. The sort of country the founding fathers were trying to live in, we were trying to create then—but it didn’t quite come off. There was a time when we were getting really near to having a proper democracy—200 years before we really achieved it. And that would be a good time to look back to be inspired. The army in the Civil War actually had a rank that was called ‘Agitator,’ which was someone who went out and agitated for change—for more democracy. That idea of the English Commonwealth—our Civil War was fought about the principal of bringing the King to account. Was the King above the law, or was the King within the law? And that idea of accountability is still a very important concept both in your country and my country.
Is there a way in the U.S. to embrace a leftist nationalism like that?
If you care about your country and want it to be a fairer country, if you share in Martin Luther King’s dream, if you want universal healthcare—you’re a patriot, as far as I’m concerned. Patriotism comes in many types. They’re not all defined by Pat Buchanan. I thought George Bush represented a small clique of people in the United States of America—I think Barack Obama represents a much wider slice of the American people. And there’s a nationalism in that.
Perhaps the problem in America is that we’ve watered down our folk-heroes. We’ve watered down Martin Luther King, we’ve watered down Helen Keller…
Woody Guthrie, we’ve watered down! There are extra verses to ‘This Land Is Your Land’ that they don’t teach you in school.
Have country, folk, and bluegrass musicians pushed aside their rebellious, progressive roots? I interviewed Earl Scruggs a few months back, and he really shied away from talking about his anti-war stance during the sixties.
Well, he wasn’t someone who chose playing bluegrass as a career option out of a career portfolio of things he could do. He was an ordinary working man who happened to play bluegrass, and it worked for him. He was trying to reflect his own experiences, and I have a lot of respect for people who try and do that.
Do you say that because the same thing is not true for you? You do seem to have a large portfolio of things you can do. I was pretty impressed that you’re doing this Beethoven thing in August.
Well, whether collaborating with Woody Guthrie, Wilco, or Beethoven and a symphony orchestra, it’s all the same sort of deal, really. It’s all about doing something that’s more interesting than just working the way you normally work.
You were lucky enough to record some of Woody Guthrie’s unreleased songs a decade ago with Wilco.
To write new music to some songs that he wrote. Because he—like me—doesn’t read music. He’s not musically trained. When he writes a song, he just writes the words and keeps the tune in his head. Which I do. If I died tomorrow, those tunes would be lost forever, but the words would still be there. And that’s what we got from Woody. We got complete lyrics to work with. I did a gig in 1992 in Central Park—an 80th birthday celebration for Woody Guthrie. His daughter Nora was there, and she saw something in the songs I sang and the way I performed them that reminded her of her father. And she began writing to me and sending me lyrics and asking me if I was interested in this project. And eventually, in the late nineties, it all came together rather wonderfully with Wilco.
Supposedly you guys had some creative friction during the making of that album.
We made a film of the whole process called Man in the Sand. And there is part of that film that reflects how Jeff Tweedy and I had differences of opinion about the production of the record. The basic deal was that whoever wrote the song would produce that song. And that was a pretty good deal, I thought. And that’s how we worked. But in the middle of the process, after we’d been in the studio working together really, really well, Wilco sent some mixes of my stuff that they suggested, and I just had to say, ‘Look guys, we have a deal. I’m not going to mix your stuff. I’d rather you didn’t mix my stuff.’ And that’s how we left it. The real proof of our working relationship is that when it came time to release Volume 2, they went back and recorded half a dozen new songs—at their own expense—which made that second album a much more Wilco-like album. If they really had a falling out with me or I had a falling out with them, they wouldn’t have made a contribution. I would work together with them tomorrow at the drop of the hat.
Maybe you can play both albums together at Coachella sometime.
It’s Woody’s Centenary in 2012, and if Nora Guthrie doesn’t manage to get us to play together, I think she’ll be very angry! Both me and Jeff, we do what Nora tells us to do because we’re part of the family now. I hope we can come together to do some shows.
Did you ever write ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ on your guitar like Woody did?
When I was in a punk band, I wrote ‘This Guitar Says ‘Sorry.’’
What was it like playing folk to punk audiences?
When I started, it was still punk. It was just one guy with an electric guitar playing punk. It was only when I started coming to America that people compared me to Woody Guthrie. In England, everyone said I was a ‘one man Clash!’ I would still try to live up to that today!
When I created a Billy Bragg Pandora station, it came back and played a lot of Elvis Costello.
Elvis to me was the ultimate singer-songwriter, because it had a backbone to it. It had an edge to it. It wasn’t apologetic like so many of the others. It was hard-edged punk rock singer-songwriter. Elvis kind of makes it okay to get on stage with a symphony orchestra.
Or to play with Burt Bacharach! Or to grow a long beard!
I’m not sure I’ll be singing Burt anytime soon, but I will be singing Beethoven.
I’m looking forward to it. But why the Ninth Symphony?
Well, I was involved in an event to celebrate the reopening of a London concert venue called the Royal Festival Hall. It had been built in the fifties and they refurbished it. And as part of the reopening ceremonies, they were having a weekend of events which culminated in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth—the fourth movement, the final bit. ‘Ode to Joy.’ They asked me to write some lyrics for it. Fortunately, it happens to be one of my favorite pieces of classical music. So I duly wrote a new English-language lyric.
Can you give our audience just a little taste of one of the lyrics to your libretto to ‘Ode to Joy’?
The chorus is ‘Brother, Sister, stand together! Raise your voices now as one—though, by history divided, reconcile in unison.’
Do you think you have a unique gift for delivering lyrics like that un-ironically and unapologetically?
I really took my queue from the line in Beethoven’s original, which is ‘Alle menschen werden brüder…’ ‘All men become brothers.’’ When you see that that was the original intent of the lyrics, that verse to me is a very strong. My lyric is not a translation at all, but I took the original sentiment from Beethoven and Friedrich Schiller.
When you played Beethoven for the first time, you played for the Queen of England!
She came to the gig. I wasn’t playing for her. It was being performed, and she kind of came to the gig and sat in the royal box. And it was very funny, because when we were in a higher box on the other side of the theater, you could kind of see what she was doing. And when they were singing my lyrics, she was kind of following them with her finger in the program! And afterwards, she sent a footman down to ask if she could have a copy of the score signed by Mr. Bragg.
You weren’t tempted to yell at her? ‘Off with her head! Another revolution! I’m an agitator!’
No, I wasn’t really. To be perfectly honest with you, my mum was there! It’s not often you get to do something that impresses your mum in rock ‘n’ roll!