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From the OMN Archives: Billy Bragg: Rebel with a Cause; Talking about Politics, Prisoners and more...

By ANA AMMANN // After the 2018 midterm elections, we revisit this conversation with Billy Bragg, one of England's most prolific and outspoken musicians as the discussion about music, change and activism remains relevant today.

by Ana Ammann

Billy Bragg (born Stephen William Bragg in 1957) is one of England’s most outspoken musicians, lending his voice for causes that support the political left, social activism and justice. OMN published this interview with Billy 8 years ago this week.  On the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, we revisit this conversation with 2018 The Ivors Award Winner for Outstanding Contribution to British Music about music, change and activism, which remains relevant today.

Bragg’s inspiration stems from the socially conscious folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. He’s spent more than two decades making an indelible mark on the conscience of music with celebrated solo records and two Grammy-nominated albums with Wilco—Mermaid Avenue (1998) and Mermaid Avenue, Volume II (2000), and is equally known for his narrative songwriting style and 'heart on his sleeve' love songs,

As those of us on this side of the pond prepare for next week’s Election Day 2010 with races for state and local leaders, as well as measures that will affect our future, Bragg spoke with me from his home in England and had much to say about Politics, Prisoners, Percentages and Partnerships.

The image of the protest singer has always been seductive - but the notion that you can change the world by singing songs can only serve to undermine activism. Sure, we songwriters have a role to play - we can bring people together to express solidarity, we can help to raise funds, we can use our platform to offer different perspectives - but once we step down from the stage, we are individuals with nothing more than the brittle power that celebrity bestows. My experience tells me that real change can only be achieved by organized individuals working together with one another in common cause. -Billy Bragg



Tell me about the mission and message behind the "Hope, Love & Justice Tour" you are embarking on with Mavis Staples.

The mission is to counter some of the cynicism that is out there at the moment in the political discourse. Over the last few years I’ve come to realize that our enemies - for those of us who want to make the world a better place - is not capitalism or conservatism, it’s cynicism.

Where do you feel the cynicism is coming from?

Glenn Beck! He gets paid for being cynical, and he and people like him, are pouring cynicism into the American political discourse to the extent that there is absolutely no room for compromise with anyone for the American right. They believe the worst of everyone, even the people that are on their own side; they are clearly so angry that they think ill of anyone that doesn’t have exactly the same ideas.

What do you make of politics in America?

Politics is much too important to be left to politicians. It takes individuals to go out there and try and do something themselves on issues they feel strongly about. Citizen activism is a very important vehicle for social change, but if you want to defeat your enemies you must first learn their songs. You have to keep you eyes on those people, otherwise the tea party, the armed wing of middle class America, they are going to bust the shape of the political discourse.

Have you ever held an elected position?

I’ve never been elected to office, but I’ve been quite close to political parties, particularly in the 1980s when I got close to the Labour party. But my experience with political parties is over. They tend to change their spots over the years - the Labour party that opposed Margaret Thatcher is a different party than opposed Tony Blair.



How do you influence Hope, Love and Justice through your work?

One of the simplest ways we do it is that we bring people together; people who feel strongly about similar issues. There is this sense that you get when you come to a gig and someone sings a song about an issue you feel strongly about, and everyone cheers. You realize you are not the only person in the world who has that same sense of this issue. That can be very, very important.

The first political thing I was in was Rock Against Racism. At the time, I was working in an office where the language was casually racist; it was sexist; it was homophobic. I was the office junior so I never said anything about it. I knew it was wrong, but I never said anything about it because I thought I was in the minority. When I went to Rock Against Racism in 1978, there were 100,000 kids my age just like me in the park that day, and I realized that while I might be in the minority in the office, I was not in the minority in my generation. In fact, this would be the issue that would define my generation - opposition to discrimination of all kinds.

Going to that gig and being with that audience changed my perspective of the world and I think that is the most that music can aspire to. Just singing songs unfortunately cannot change the world. Words alone are not enough to save us. You have to have actions to go with it. Being in that audience, I had that sense of community and that’s one of the ways a band like the Staples Singers always did it. Whether they were working with Dr. King, or whether they were working with other groups in society on the issue of civil rights, they brought people together. That’s a very important skill if you are trying to build a movement.

So two people, from two different sides of the Atlantic, playing different styles of music, coming together to promote social change?

They are not that different really. If you listen to my last album, a song like “I Keep Faith” could easily have been part of the Staples’ repertoire. Seems an odd thing to say now, but I actually learned a lot of my politics from listening to American song music. When I was first listening, the music I really got into was that of Motown. And although there was The Jackson Five and Smokey Robinson, there was also Marvin Gaye singing “Abraham, Martin and John” and as a thirteen year-old, that really touched me. It made me think that these people were talking about something, not just singing music.

That song’s very presence in the charts, in the racially segregated country that America still was in the 60's was, in itself, a political act. That then drew me to the more political acts like The Oppression and people like Curtis Mayfield.

How did you come to have such an open mindedness during the politically turbulent times of the 60's and 70's?

I grew up in an open family, that for its’ time, was very accepting. My dad had been in India during the war and he was quite open minded about the Indian people that came to live and come to work in the car factory nearby. He was very open minded. My mom herself came from an Italian immigrant family so they never saw immigrants as a threat.

My mom still lives in that same house on the same street and I think she still has the same views. She judges people as she finds them.



In recent years, your open mindedness has extended to rehabilitating inmates through your Jail Guitar Doors project (named after a Clash song and founded in memory of Joe Strummer) providing guitars and songwriting instruction to those that want to learn:

One of the things that is inspirational to me about music, is its’ ability to talk for people that don’t have a voice. That’s what Woody Guthrie tried to do; in some ways that’s what The Clash tried to do; and Mavis, her brother and sisters, and her father tried to do the same thing. Jail Guitar Doors is an extension of that. It’s trying to give voice to those people who are in our prisons, whose lives have taken a wrong turn.

There are some people who say that for people who are in prison, we should lock the doors and throw away the key and never let them out of prison again. I happen to believe that there may be a minority of people in our prisons who should never come out again because of public safety issues, but the majority of people who are in prison are going to come out again and they are going to come back into society. Maybe we should try, while we have them in our custody, to turn their lives around. Providing the guitars to people who are using guitar playing and songwriting as a means of engaging inmates in the process of rehabilitation is my small contribution.

I get into a lot of arguments with people over this. There are some who believe that there should be no interaction with people in prison, the experience in prison should be punishment. I believe that being sent to prison is the punishment. We have a real opportunity while they are in our custody to intervene in their lives. Many people are in our prisons because they are mentally ill, some have drug addiction problems. Yes, they have turned to crime, but they are not hard core criminals. They are people who have fallen through all the gaps in social provisions - school has failed them, the health service has failed them and the charities have failed them. The last place that they end up in is prison. I think we should be doing something to help them climb out of that hole.

Low self esteem among reoffenders in Britain is well documented. If you can help inmates raise their self confidence, to give them a skill - I don’t’ mean a vocational skill that they are going to come out and get a job with, just the opportunity to use playing the guitar and songwriting as a way of dealing with the day. If my son has a rotten day at school, he comes home, goes upstairs, plays on his electric guitar and makes a very loud noise. I listen to him and think that he is doing what I used to do. He is dealing with the things the day has thrown at him. He is dealing with them in a non-confrontational way. That’s what we hope the inmates will learn to do. Obviously, it doesn’t work for everybody, it’s not a panacea, but for those who do grab hold of our guitars, we have had some very positive outcomes.



On the subject of positive outcomes, what social change would you like to see take place in your lifetime?

The change I would like to see - in the United States of America, in Britain, and the rest of the world - is people put before the market. I think we’ve got our priorities the wrong way around. Here in the UK today, the government has announced the biggest cuts in public spending since the Second World War. This is an attempt by the government to make ordinary working people pay for the mistakes the banks made in the credit crunch. It is totally unacceptable. They are rioting in France. The government is looking to increase the retirement age there from 60 to 62. That doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing you would go to the barricades for does it? But the point is this, the French are resisting their lives being taken over by whims of the free market. They are resisting the market being prioritized ahead of their happiness. That is a really radical idea. I don’t think we live in a world where people are going to talk about overthrowing a capitalist system anymore, but it doesn’t mean that we are quite content to allow the capitalist system to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, with whoever it wants. The big challenge in the 21st century, is figuring out how we hold the bankers to account. Accountability is a really important word in the 21st century.

And hoping we can pass on to our children the sense of accountability.

You’d hope so, it’s difficult when the banks do these things and walk away with their bonuses intact. They don’t seem to show any sense of understanding of the trouble that they’ve caused.



You were an independent artist before it commonplace to do so, can you talk about your decision to do that and what it afforded you as a result?

It occurred early on, in part because nobody believed I was capable of making a second album. They had just signed me for the first album. When the second album came along, I was in a situation then to have some leverage. Instead of my first deal being signed for my entire life - or rather the life of copyright on the album - I had an opportunity to get that stuff back. Fortunately, I had a manager who was smart enough to spot this, and over the years negotiate deals for me whereby after a certain amount of time, usually seven years, the rights of the record came back to me. What that has allowed me to do is to alter my deals to keep up with the change in technology that have taken place since I began making records. I’m so old, I’ve got gold records, that’s how long I’ve been making music. Sounds like I lived in another century - (sarcastically) oh actually I did.

Those deals that people signed in the 80's for the life of copyright, they had nothing about MP3’s in them. How do you deal with that now? You go back to the record label, they’ve got your rights and you have no leverage over them. I think my example to own your rights doesn’t get you as much money up front, and you may not get the support that the big bands who sell their souls get, but ultimately, the songs that you wrote and the albums that you made become your pension - not the pension of the guy at the record company. And after 20 years, it isn’t that guy in the record company, it’s someone else, the record company has likely been bought. The label that I originally signed with was Go! Discs. If I would have signed over life of copyright, I have no idea who would own my rights today and be profiting from them because the guys that signed me don’t even own the label anymore. In fact, the label doesn’t exist.

That original deal I signed, I got 8% of the dealer price. The deal I now have, on that same album with a new record label, which I negotiated five years ago, I get 85% of the dealer price. Now, I have to pay for the pressings, pay for all the publicity and do all the heavy lifting, but get the lion’s share. So that’s what it’s allowed me to do, it’s allowed me to more or less reverse the percentage between me and the record label, carry on making records and still get money in my pocket. I wish more bands would do that. It’s very difficult though at that moment when you are ready to sign a record deal to think of that because for most bands, signing on the line means they can give up their rotten old day job and say they got a record deal. In the long term now, record labels don’t have the money to give bands loads of money up front.



You have collaborated with so many artists is there anyone left in your wish list of people you would like to work with?

Oh yeah! There are LOADS of people I’d love to collaborate with. I’m always thinking about people who I’d love to sit down and have a sing-song with. All the time. Everyone from Bob Dylan all the way down to some kid who sent me a CD recently who sounded like he really meant it. I’m always up for a bit of that. I thrive on collaboration, that’s why I’m looking forward to going out with Mavis, I’m sure there will be some crossover there. In the new year, I’m hoping to go in the studio with Roseanne Cash and Jo Henley to make an album of songs together, all new material.

Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, handpicked you to share her fathers’ poems through your music to a new generation. If you were to hand down your legacy, who might you choose to carry it forward?

There are a number of young singer/songwriters that are coming through over here, in particular, a young woman named Grace Petrie who plays guitar and sings, and played with me at Glastonbury last year. She’d definitely be up for the job.

You want someone with a little bit of distance from you. Someone who wasn’t a die-hard Billy Bragg fan, someone who could see something else in Billy Bragg. One of the things that Nora didn’t actually say to me, but that I got a very strong feeling of, was that I shouldn’t record any songs that were about dust. Enough people already knew that about Woody. I should go and record the ones about the things that people didn’t know about, like flying saucers and making love to Ingrid Bergman.

I would imagine that someone who came in would want to aim for my love songs rather than my political songs. That would make me very happy, so I would probably choose a really great soul singer to come in and cover my work. The next Otis Redding, or the next Sam Cooke, someone like that, I would love for them to come in and have a go.

People tell me that they are inspired by my songs, and for that I’m thankful, but I take my inspiration from the only people in this equation who can actually make a difference - the audience. After 25 years of activism, my faith in your ability to change the world is undimmed. -Billy Bragg


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