Billy Bragg: ‘Songs can’t change the world’

“The great thing about folk music is that it never really goes away,” Bragg explains. “It’s quite capable of carrying on what no while no one pays attention to it, and then suddenly it’s back into focus again.”

But the way these times are a changin’, folk songs have their work cut out for them. Bragg perhaps knows this better than anyone, on the cusp of releasing a book on the history of skiffle – the rough, shuffling music of travellers that helped place the guitar at the centre of popular music – and soon to tour Australia on the back of recent album Shine A Light.

A collaboration with fellow songwriter Joe Henry, the project saw the pair revisit the song traditions of the American railroads while making their own way across the continent by train. Then, of course, there’s the decades spent penning his own contributions to the canon.

“It’s hard, it’s really hard. It moves so fast,” he says, citing a tumultuous past week that included rolling political upheavals in Northern Ireland and Scotland in the wake of the UK Parliament triggering Article 50. “That’s just in three days – never mind what happened last week. It just means your topical songs have got to be on it,” he jokes.

“[But] songs are filtering through, writers who’ve not normally written about these things are now unable to ignore politics. I point out to young songwriters ‘You’ll start writing political songs when politics comes to find you’, like it came to find us in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher.”

Having completed unfinished Woody Guthrie songs with Wilco for 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, and more recently covering Dylan in concert, Bragg explains the kind of communal shorthand that these ingrained folk traditions tap in to. “My experience with writing topical songs is they have a terrible habit of becoming relevant again,” he says. “It’s really annoying, but songs can’t change the world so it’s bound to happen. You find a song like what Woody wrote about Donald Trump’s father in the 1940s, and all of a sudden it makes sense to you again, and that’s how the roots music tradition still enlivens contemporary music, you can reach back.

“When I needed a song on the night of the inauguration, I was so frustrated by the content of Donald Trump’s speech and I needed a vehicle for that anger. The Times They Are A Changin’ is something everyone’s familiar with, so I took the title and added the word “back” and wrote some new lyrics. When I played it that night it was a language everyone understands, they knew exactly where it was coming from, they knew exactly what it was saying.”

Then there’s its intersection with punk, a wave which Bragg initially rode to prominence decades ago. We couldn’t help but ask what Bragg made of the recent head-scratching claim that, in the wake of reactionary, self-styled “provocateurs” like Milo Yiannopoulos being shunned by the mainstream, conservatism is now the “new punk”.

“Conservatism is the new pose,” Bragg fires back. “There’s a lot of posing on the alt-right. Those guys doing Nazi salutes and saying ‘Heil Trump’… what a bunch of bloody posers they are. Punk rock was all about community and breaking down walls and people coming together. I don’t see any of that in conservatism, it’s the absolute opposite. It’s about white supremacy. And for me punk rock was inexorably tied up with multiculturalism because punk and black kids came together on a musical level – Rock Against Racism was part of that.

“It’s no punk that I would recognise; you can’t be punk in a suit.”

Bragg will go it alone in Adelaide, the only solo show in a national tour alongside Henry (“What do you do when you’ve got three days off between Melbourne and Perth?” Bragg posits, “You play a gig in Adelaide, that’s what its there for!”). Then, it’s a tour of Europe where the reality of Brexit will continue to rear its head night in, night out as he plays his very British-sounding songs to spurned EU crowds.

“I do have a bit of explaining to do, that’s for sure,” he jokes ruefully.

Billy Bragg
Monday April 24 2017
The Gov
Tickets available via: thegov.com.au

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