The American left needs Billy Bragg more than ever. Many of the London songwriter-guitarist's songs, including "There Is Power in a Union," lend themselves to use as rousing anthems. But he has a way of avoiding the traps liberal public figures so often hit.
A stubborn old tree trunk to Barack Obama's wavering arugula stalk, Bragg speaks well and lustily, without fussy equivocations. Yet his indignation and sense of justice are never at odds with his all-embracing warmth. An enthusiastic but atypical European socialist, he urges Americans to adopt universal health care, but he also sees great nobility in the American practice of barn-raising.
Challenging interview questions bring out a sporting side of the man, rather than flustering him. He's happy to embrace the profane, especially in his role as de facto ambassador for Woody Guthrie's legendary catalog of American folk songs.
Bragg and Wilco recently released the third volume in the Mermaid Avenue series of albums. They were recruited by Guthrie's daughter Nora, who asked them to write songs from an unrecorded trove of Woody lyrics. This year, Bragg is playing concerts in honor of what would be Guthrie's 100th birthday. At a July 10 Barrymore show, he plans to play one acoustic set of Mermaid Avenue tracks and classic Guthrie tunes. Then he'll do a set of the solo-electric originals he's been writing since the early 1980s, which have ranged from defiant political gestures to lonesome plaints like "The Milkman of Human Kindness."
Bragg knows Madison's labor-lovers will expect encouragement and comfort on the heels of Gov. Scott Walker's recall-election victory, which seemingly vindicated the American right's strident anti-union stance. He is an agile, flexible artist, and that helps give his sermonizing an immediacy - and, more importantly, makes it sound less like sermonizing. Which is significant, because Wisconsin's trauma has driven home how difficult it can be to write a good topical protest song.
Bragg credits Wisconsin activists with fighting "perhaps the first big battle" of this political era. He is a bold speaker, and talking to him, I wished he would say more about what his side can do better. Then again, beating himself up isn't Bragg's style.
From his home in the U.K., he spoke earlier this month about the bawdy side of Woody Guthrie and discussed how his set may change as his U.S. tour progresses.
Do you feel a responsibility to give audiences a more complete picture of Woody Guthrie, considering his near-mythic stature, and all the material he left behind in various stages of completion?
Really, that's what Nora Guthrie asked me to do. That's why Mermaid Avenue opens with a song ["Walt Whitman's Niece"] in which he's hanging out with three sailors getting drunk and chasing pussy. She wanted me to get him down off the pedestal and bring him back to real, flesh-and-blood life. He did write "This Land Is Your Land," but he also did want to make love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of an Italian volcano.
And you have an introduction to that song, "Ingrid Bergman," in which you joke at length about the word "tumescence."
With a little bit of reverb, it's a fabulous word to say to audiences. It doesn't often get used. I had cause today to type the word "disestablishmentarianism," which is another wonderful word.
But even before you get to that bawdy side of him, there's a whole range that's challenging. You can have a completely playful song like "Work," and then "The Ludlow Massacre," about a tragic miners' strike.
And more of a problem was when I was first writing these songs, I kept choosing songs that sounded like Billy Bragg songs, which was partly why I invited Wilco to take part. The first time I tried out any of the songs live was in a little bar in London, mostly to long-term Bragg fans. I explained what I was doing and played songs like "All You Fascists Bound to Lose," "She Came Along to Me," those kinds of songs. It became clear to me that they couldn't tell the difference between Woody songs and my songs. I was getting a bit worried that my version of Woody Guthrie was a little bit too similar to Billy Bragg.
But the thing is, there's so many songs in there. There's over 3,000 songs in the archive. He writes about so many different things that you can choose your Woody Guthrie, really. I use the songs to make a narrative about alternative versions of Woody, other angles of him, as a song collector, as a bluesman, as an Elizabethan balladeer.
Madison is a place where you can see somebody walking his dog, and the dog is wearing an AFSCME T-shirt - no exaggeration. How can people like this persuade voters who don't have much direct knowledge or experience of unions?
I think when people's backs are up against the wall, they start to look around and see who is supporting them. There's a great union tradition in your country. There's a tradition, even on the frontier, of people coming together. That whole barn-raising tradition - I'm sure that wasn't just invented for the musical Oklahoma!, was it? That was based on a real, genuine experience.
That's what we're talking about. We're talking about communities working together. The individual gets a barn because the community supported the raising of that A-frame. You can't do that on your own. That's what we're talking about when you refer to socialism. We're talking about a compassionate society in which the individual is supported by the community. That's the sort of society I want to live in.
But when do unions have to question the way they go about campaigning and presenting issues, especially when it turns out a large number of union members voted for Walker?
We live in a post-ideological period now, where the political discourse is not as opposite as it was in the time when Margaret Thatcher and the Labour Party were at different ends of the political spectrum. Now the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are on the same bit of narrow ground, don't want to upset anybody. The fight that's going on in Wisconsin is going on everywhere.
I mean, there's an election in Greece this weekend over the same issues. Our doctors in this country are thinking of going on strike, which has never happened before. Unprecedented. Even our police are thinking about strike action, and it's illegal for them to strike. What's happening in Wisconsin is not just a little bit of local difficulty for the capitalist system.
Basically, I think it's fair to argue that, in terms of the West, the Democratic Socialist parties and the Social Democrats, about 30 years ago, they'd run out of imagination. They kind of lost the way to articulate or deliver what they were trying to do. But the irony is, now that the Berlin Wall has collapsed, capitalism has kind of run out of imagination. In Wall Street and in Frankfurt and in London, the moneymen are pulling the usual levers and nothing's happening. Nothing's happening at all, and ultimately, it's going to come down to a moment when the irresistible force of the markets hits the immovable object of the people.
What we saw in Wisconsin in the last few months has been one of the rehearsals for that.
What Guthrie songs are you planning to emphasize here?
There's no way I'm going to come to Madison without thinking about what happened there and the struggles that have been going on there. I'll probably be in town the day before, because of the way the tour is. I'll have a bit of a chance to talk to people. Hopefully, I'll be able to focus what I'm doing about Woody and what I'm doing about Billy Bragg to come up with something special for Madison.
So you're never tempted to just hole up in your hotel room when you're on tour?
Hotel rooms are just so boring, mate. I have an imaginary dog that I take for a walk. In the old days, it used to be trying to find an Internet cafe, because they always tended to be in the groovy part of town. I seem to remember I had to go in the public library in Madison, or maybe the university, when I was there last time. I always try to engage.
People are talking about what's happening in Madison all over. I'm sure I'll be getting updated as I get closer.
But are there Guthrie songs that you find too important to leave out of the set?
One of his songs that I didn't write, one of his classic songs that I'm playing, [is] "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore." A more prescient song I'd be hard-pressed to find now. The fact that it's over 70 years old doesn't dim its important relevance to where we are now. When it talks about people losing their homes to the banks, people having to break up their families to look for work, people dying for want of proper health care, it's very pertinent in the United States of America.
I've been playing that every night for the last 18 months, two years. Never mind Mermaid Avenue. Some nights I don't play any Mermaid Avenue, but I play that. Woody's always present in my set.
Of your own songs, is "To Have and Have Not" in your set a lot lately? It's got this sense of economic division, but more importantly, it's about the apprehension of a young person going out into the world.
One-hundred percent yeah. That's an example of pre-ideological Billy Bragg, when I was sort of writing with a less political eye, really. That was a very, very personal song. But also, again, it still resonates, and it has been in the set of late. I don't want you to think it's all politics. I am singing a lot of soppy love songs, too.