British folk-punker Billy Bragg might not appreciate a heady comparison to Bob Dylan and all of the unnecessary weight that comes with it, but the two great songwriters certainly share some traits. Both are able to tackle complicated social and political issues while appealing to the broad populace and, as a result, getting a point across, at least on a subconscious level. It’s a real gift, and one that is perhaps more vital than ever under present conditions.
Shortly before the United States was split in half, choosing between Clinton and Trump, the U.K. was similarly divided as it debated the pros and cons of Brexit — exiting the European Union. As with the American election, fear-mongering over immigration played a key role in the narrative. And, as happened in the States, the fear-mongerers won.
Bragg got into a bit of hot water with half of the British public when he made a statement in the press that could well be applied to Trump voters over here: “Not everyone who voted Leave is a racist, but every racist has been emboldened by the vote to leave.”
And just like that, he summed up the whole Brexit debate. And the U.S. election. And, for that matter, the French election, which, thank God, Marine Le Pen lost. But that’s Bragg’s gift. His words and his work translate across oceans and eras.
“When I started [recent album Shine a Light], we had absolutely no idea that Brexit would happen, or Trump would happen, or Leicester City would win the [English soccer] Premiership, or the Cubs would win the World Series,” Bragg says. “As the year unfolded, I tried to explain in America that it’s not just about electing him, but it’s about legitimizing the kind of views that he expresses. When Brexit went down, even though it was by a very narrow margin, every xenophobe suddenly felt legitimized. A lot of racist words were being used on the streets of England that I hadn’t heard since the 1970s. This year, I’ve gone back to writing songs about it.”
That’s wonderful news; Bragg is at his best when he’s dealing in social commentary. That said, Shine a Light, the album he worked on with American singer-songwriter Joe Henry, saw the pair journey across the States by train, getting off and actually recording a classic American railroad song at key stations. The work goes hand-in-hand with Bragg’s recent book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, which came out in this country in July.
“I started thinking about why there are so many American railroad songs and what the connection is,” Bragg says. “Obviously, the railroad was a hugely transformative technology in the United States of America. Before the railway came, it was really only possible to build a city on a river, because otherwise, it was impossible to travel there, either across the wilderness or through a forest. The railroad comes and that changes. That’s reflected in American culture, particularly African-American culture, where the railways give them the opportunity to escape from the South and into the parts of the USA where Jim Crow laws are not quite so prevalent. I think that’s why there’s a lot of these train songs about. So I wanted to make a record with Joe that helped to reconnect some of these songs with the railroad itself by physically getting on the train and singing the songs as we went.”
It’s fascinating how Bragg can take something from the past — a traditional form of music, for example — and marry it with what’s going on now. Or how he can pass from one era to another seamlessly. Skiffle is a sub-genre of American jazz that’s indigenous to the U.K., usually played on homemade instruments. In the States, it originates from African-American slang for a party or event. Bragg explored all sides with his book and the album, he delved deep into history, and now he’s ready to get back to the now. He’s been releasing singles monthly, and he aims to put out a full-length CD at Christmas.
“The first was called ‘The Sleep of Reason,’ which was broadly speaking about 2016 and what happened,” he says. “The second was ‘King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood,’ which is about global warming. The third is called ‘Why We Build the Wall,’ which is self-explanatory. The one that just came out is a reflection on what happened in Charlottesville, and it’s called ‘Saffiyah Smiles.’ If you’re writing topical songs, you want people to hear them, so I’m just putting them out, mostly in the form of streaming and through lyric videos.”
A glance at the subject matter, and one could be forgiven for thinking that Bragg lives in a state of constant misery — that he agonizes over current affairs and is never less than furious. But while he certainly feels things deeply, he’s an amiable conversationalist, and he’s not without hope.
“Since the election in the U.K., a new generation of activists seems to have been galvanized,” Bragg says. “We were at the Glastonbury Festival, where they were chanting the name of Jeremy Corbyn [leader of the U.K. Labor Party] to the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army.’ I never heard anything like that with any of the other Labor leaders. That encourages me. Young people seem to be energized, and the Conservative party seem to have lost their way over Brexit. I’m hoping that as the negotiations unfold, public opinion will shift against, and we might have the opportunity to have a rethink.”
Anyone who hasn’t seen Billy Bragg live yet really should. He has an incredible body of work, and he’ll be dipping into many of his albums on this tour.
“The core of the set is my back catalogue,” he says. “The set's running for about two hours at the moment. There’s no support act, which allows me to range widely over everything. I’m really enjoying myself. I’ve always had a good time in Colorado. Boulder’s got a certain vibe to it up there, and it has a feel like no other place. That’s always nice when you’re traveling and you don’t really want to be in a cookie-cutter town all the time. But Boulder, with the mountains and the cultural vibe up there, it’s always been a place that I’ve remembered coming to.”
When this tour is over, Bragg will start again in Europe. He’s hoping to make a BBC documentary about skiffle. Naturally, he’ll keep writing songs, because he’s the type of artist who will always have something to say. And it’ll always be worth listening to.
Billy Bragg, 8 p.m., Thursday, October 12, Boulder Theater, 2032 15th Street, Boulder, 303-786-7030.
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