Friday, November 18, 2016


Trump has answered the great conundrum of the 20thC: how did a rational people like the Germans come to vote for a demagogue like Hitler?

I am probably not the most appropriate, as a Brit, to be passing comment on your election outcome. But I know one who does, and his widely reported, at least over here, tweet of 11/9 will no doubt offend many. But, as ever, those who have decried his comment merely miss the point. This is actually neither comparing Trump to Hitler, nor calling Americans fools, merely pointing out how shit happens, quirks all of the wrong time, wrong place, complications to what the literati might call common sense. Or common preconception, anyway.

So what of Bragg, archetypal Essex boy, the "Bard of Barking", his home town? And why has he become such a potent force in musico-political activism? Probably best known stateside for his being granted custodianship of the legacy of unfinished lyrics by Woody Guthrie and producing, with the band Wilco, 2 excellent volumes of new music for them, he has had a long enough history over here of irritating the establishment as to have become a national treasure, cropping up regularly on news programmes as a credible and articulate voice of, often, a counterculture to the prevailing winds. (It is sort of how things happen over here.)

Born in 1957 of english-italian stock, he first hit the establishment buffers aged 11, failing his 11 plus exams, the then entry into a better, or at least further education, He thus channeled his interest in poetry into a passion for music, picking up a guitar and practising like mad. The mid-70s were a good time for starting bands. In response to the overblown pomp of the dinosaurs of the music industry, another establishment, punk rock had begun it's eventually unsuccessful bid to smash it all down. His first band didn't make it, but in the process he learnt how music could shape opinion, citing the Clash and their appearance at a legendary Rock Against Racism carnival in 1978 as the moment. Oddly, his next move was to join the army, possibly unsurprisingly finding it not the best place for an opinionated young man of left-leaning ideological views. Buying himself out, as was necessary, after 3 months, cost £175, equivalent today to about $650.

Taking the d.i.y. ethos to the next level, he next became a busker, albeit with electric guitar (attached to a small speaker), honing his art and attracting the attention of the movers and shakers, including, as seems did everyone who ever made it, DJ John Peel. Peel had commented on his hunger mid-show, galvanising Bragg to immediately deliver a plate of curry and a demo. A series of records ensued, deliberately produced and sold cheaply, mixing political comment with quirky love songs, usually just voice and barely amplified guitar. His singing voice was a thing of simplicity; raw, unadorned and utterly without any accent other than his own, unmistakably thames estuary inflection. Nominally punk/new wave, irredeemably folk, at least to my ears, and thus my immediate interest. In a nation under the thumb of Margaret Thatcher, there was a healthy appetite for opposition, Bragg becoming a regular at the barricades.

Astonishingly, perhaps, songs like the above were hits, but sales were never massive enough for him to have complete control, at least not whilst in the thrall of an increasingly global record company, who expected ever more sales and commerciality. The overt nature of of his politics was probably rather too full on for universal coverage. It seemed for a while as if he could deliver, especially with anthemic and thought inspiring single, Sexuality, a pop song despite itself (but who listens to the words, anyway, perhaps the curse of the motivated lyricist.) In the end, and in order to get back the rights to his back catalogue, he had to pay back the residual of his six figure advance.

It was about now, late 90's that Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody, came across him, sensing something of her troubadour father in his work and leanings. Whilst not an obvious candidate, Bragg took this like a duck to water, his vocal cords taking on just enough translanticism to be credible.

Back then, in the UK, the politics seemingly having turned his way, as ever it turned out so not quite the hoped for policies and directions of flow. (Which may be a glimmer of hope post Trump's victory. Just as you have to be careful for what you wish for, maybe so have more hope of your worst fears than you expect?) Anyhow, with the disappointments of "New" Labour, the nominally socialist or quasi-democratic party we have, Bragg turned his ear to the vexed issue of national identity, thwarted and subverted by an abusive nationalism, trying to find a path between racist exclusivist views and inclusive pride in a mongrel nation. Sound familiar?

Latterly his output has seemed gentler, his last 2 solo releases being often more straightforward song cycles of middle-aged contentedness, up to a point, in his own skin. But, having seen him play live this summer, at one of the music festivals I try to get to each year, on a scorching sunday afternoon, slotted in between Wilko Johnson and Squeeze, days before the fated Brexit vote, he was as rousing and rallying as ever. Playing a set of largely political song, accompanied only by his own guitar and a pedal steel player, he did his best to plead a vote to remain in Europe, to much applause and acclaim. To no avail, as it happened, but it gave me hope.

As I write he tours the U.K., alongside credible songwriter and producer, Joe Henry, revisiting some Guthrie-esque americana roots, to promote their excellent duet record, 2 voices, acoustic guitars and occasional eavesdropped background sound. His voice, now a weathered and tuneful instrument in it's new lower key, a joy alongside Henry's higher tones, and some wonderful songs. Like this:

So, be Billys and Braggs, as Washington threatens to burn. As one of the songs featured above says, maybe, it's true,  in a somewhat different sense, there is indeed power in a Union, whether of states or of workers.

Buy Billy!!

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