Billy Bragg Still Proving that Protest Music Didn’t Die

Protest music generally makes it way to the forefront during times of strife and trouble. Judging from the American music scene you would think that it’s been smooth sailing since the end of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Oh sure, there have been punks making statements and rappers blaming cops for every one of society’s ills, but where is the modern day Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs or Bob Dylan? Sad to say, in American the closest thing we’ve had is Bruce Springsteen, a man so ill-suited to the job that one of his most famous songs was easily misinterpreted and turned into a Republican theme song in the 1984 election.

There is one man who has, quite literally, taken up the mantle of Woody Guthrie in speaking out musically against creeping fascism. His name is Billy Bragg and, rather sadly, he is the most authentic folk critic of American politics today.

One of Billy Bragg’s most recent songs is the wonderful “Bush War Blues.” That title should tell you all you need to know about this iconoclastic musician. If not, however, consider the titles of some other great songs available from him: “Help Save the Youth of America” “There is a Power in a Union” and “All You Fascists (Are Born to Lose).” The latter is a cover version of a Woody Guthrie song; Bragg was given the honor of recording several unrecorded Guthrie songs by Guthrie’s daughter.

Billy Bragg’s career goes back to the late 70s/early 80s when he was one of those guys you see in the London tube with a guitar and an open guitar case filled with shinyâÂ?¦farthings, ha’pennies, or whatever the heck it is those limeys use as coinage. In fact, Bragg still sings some of his best songs with nothing more than a guitar accompaniment. For those who were raised thinking that Bruce Springsteen and Camp John Mellon Cougar are exemplars of stripped-down, homespun political speechifying on records, listening to Billy Bragg is a real ear-opener.

It’s hard to say where to begin to listen to Bragg’s albums. Do you go chronological? Or by popularity? I say try to dig out The Internationale. After all, the purpose of this article is to show that political passion still survives in music form. The Internationale is the unofficial theme song of revolution. Bragg’s version takes full advantage of the soaring, majestic and inspirational music, but adds updated lyrics that includes the incredibly powerful truth: “Freedom is merely privilege extended/Unless enjoyed by one and all.” The rest of this heartfelt album tackles other famous political songs, including “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night” and “The Red Flag.” Listening to these songs first will prepare you for the onslaught of liberal politics that saturates Bragg’s music. If you consider liberalism a dirty word, then you need to listen to his albums even more urgently.

But don’t compare Billy Bragg to Bono or Sting. Bragg’s political interest lies most in grass roots movements, not the huge let’s-change-the-world-at-once photo-op kind of political spotlighting that bigger name stars pursue. Bragg’s political stance stems from close contact with his fans and a deep sense of the inherent unfairness of the political system. He’s not a grandstanding opponent of generalized evils like global warming and famine. All politics is local, Tip O’Neill once said, and Bragg realizes that you can’t change the world a million people at a time.

Don’t be afraid that this is heaving-going, however. Bragg also writes his fair share of love songs, though admittedly they are far more literate and deeper than any others you’ll hear on the radio today. Especially beautiful is “Must I Paint You a Picture” a song that manages to combine the tenderness of a love song with the socially consious lyrics of a political inquiry. Billy Bragg’s music is always accessible; it’s typically guitar-based and often consists only of Bragg’s guitar and voice. Later albums shows him opening up to a more expansive sound.

“Must I Paint You a Picture” also serves as the title of a Billy Bragg compilation album consisting of three discs and 50 tracks. For now, this album probably serves as the best introduction to Bragg. Here you will get a sense of where Bragg was musically at certain points throughout his career. If a certain sound puts you off, you can ignore the albums from which they were chosen.

The two albums that came as a result of recording the Woody Guthrie songs were made in concert with the band Wilco. They are called Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue II. The lyrics are Guthrie’s but the music was written by Bragg and members of Wilco. Again, like Bragg himself, Woody Guthrie’s lyrical interests may start with politics, but they extend beyond that. Indeed, subjects covered lyricall on these two albums include the actress Ingrid Bergman, Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak, and a flying saucer. The music doesn’t stray far from its source, keeping a Guthrie feel to it while also sounding modern.

Billy Bragg also has one of the best official web sites of any musical artist and if you think you might be interested in pursuing him further, I heartily recommend going there as soon as you’re finished here.

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