Billy Bragg Wants to Know Which Side You’re On
The legendary British songwriter enlightens us on working class rebellion, his new EP, 'Bridges Not Walls,' and his new book, 'Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World.'
Photo courtesy of Chart Room Media
Sitting down to talk to Billy Bragg about early rock 'n' roll is something most music nerds like myself only dream of, and yet, that's exactly what I got to do one sunny day this past summer. The legendary singer, songwriter, and rabble-rouser was in New York City promoting his new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, a magisterial tome that sees Bragg trace the little-known genre's roots in American blues, folk, and jazz, and follow its journey across the Atlantic Ocean to post-war working class Britain. His painstaking research—collected from years of study and conversation with the genre's greats—shows how chart-topping 1950s Scottish phenomenon Lonnie Donegan and other early skiffle heroes laid the foundation both for modern pop music and for the rollicking sound we've come to call rock 'n' roll.
The story of skiffle, which originated in the United States but made its biggest impact in the UK, spans class, race, and national borders; the genre functions as a sort of missing link between a litany of global musical styles, including punk rock, the prism through which Bragg explores the genre. There are many timely lessons to be learned from Roots, Radicals and Rockers, and Bragg, who writes with verve, wit, and his characteristic enthusiasm, is an excellent guide and companion to have for the 300-odd page journey. As he told me, "Skiffle is the rail humming for rock 'n' roll. Everything was going to come—The Beatles, everything, up to punk. Skiffle is the rail starting to vibrate before it pulls into the station."
After we met out front of Brick Lane Curry House, a dressed-down Bragg in a blue cambric shirt and jeans requested we hunt down some slightly lighter fare; we ended up in a mostly empty café a block over, and ordered a hummus plate that was summarily ignored. See, Stephen Williams Bragg of Barking, Essex is what you'd call a talker—especially once you hit upon one of the many wide-ranging topics in which he's interested, including the state of British-style curry in New York City, Beyoncé (he's a fan), and the rose-flavored ice cream we found on the menu.
I first became aware of the man's music back when I was first becoming involved in workplace organizing, and my partner, a laconic Northern Englishman from Lancashire coal country, played me a few of Bragg's pro-union songs. Pressing play on his rendition of "Power in a Union" felt like a homecoming; his words were powerful, his voice comforting, and his intent clear: he was on my team. "Power in a Union" led me to some of his other classics—"Which Side Are You On," "Thatcherites," "Between the Wars," and, of course, "The Red Flag"—which in turn led to an enduring appreciation for Bragg's smog-smeared East End pipes, earnestly clever lyrics, and resolute, fiery delivery. Even when he's singing about love, which is quite often, it still feels like he's singing about revolution.
His political leanings are a big reason why I was so keen to interview him. An avowed socialist, Bragg's long been known for his anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-labor activism and support for progressive causes on and offstage, from his work with the 1984 Miner's Strike, Occupy Wall Street, and the Scottish independence movement, to his more recent campaigning for British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. His high-profile editorials snatch nearly as many headlines as his actual records do, and over time, Bragg has grown into something of a progressive elder statesman, albeit one who has absolutely no problem confronting fascists in the streets of his old neighborhood.
I generally hang out at the more radical end of the leftist spectrum, but I've still got a ton of respect for Bragg, and was really looking forward to chewing the fat about our current shared geopolitical nightmare. (Spoiler: I was not disappointed.) Still, as far as Bragg is concerned, the music always comes first—whether it's taking the guise of punk, pop, or folk, or manifesting as a steely protest song or a broken-hearted ballad.
After racking up decades of releases, Bragg's latest musical adventure is ambitious, even for him. He's been releasing a brand new track via Cooking Vinyl every month since this past July, and will carry on with the series through December. He characterizes his first offering, "Sleep of Reason," as "a reflection on the events of the last year," and has since released August's 'King Tide And The Sunny Day Flood," which tackles climate change, and last month's "Why We Build the Wall," the subject matter of which seems self-explanatory. They'll be collected and released with two new tunes as a mini EP called Bridges Not Walls on November 3.
Our two-hour chat meandered between skiffle, Marx, heavy metal, and Jeremy Corbyn in what felt like the most natural of ways. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity, as it originally stretched past 45 pages. I told you, our man's a talker.
Noisey: So I knew a bit about skiffle before I read your book, but that's only because I took a few rock history classes in college. Why did you pick this specific moment in music history and write a whole book about it? Was there just a hole you thought needed filling?
Billy Bragg: It is, and most people still know it only in the context of The Beatles—that's how John [Lennon] met Paul McCartney]—and when it's written about, it's very often in the biographies of 60s rock British rock stars. But they treat Lonnie Donegan having a hit with "Rock Island Line" in 1956 as a singularity; they don't ever ask why, or how, or what was the context.
And that's why I wanted to do the book. I wanted to put skiffle into this public context. I talked to a few people from that period, and the way they reacted to it—clearly something very important happened to them when they were very young. I had a similar experience with punk rock, and there's quite a few similarities between skiffle and punk. I thought if I could explore skiffle through the prism of punk rock, I might be able to define something for myself, but also explain it to a generation younger than me, who don't know really anything about what happened before The Beatles.
As you explain in the book, a Londoner named Ken Colyer and his carefully curated jazz record collection were a major inspiration for the musicians who begat the UK skiffle craze—and he was just one person! One little spark, and look at what's come from it.
I think Colyer is crucial, because he gives the idea that UK skiffle needed a connection with African-American roots music, and [how] using the phrase "skiffle" [gave] it its own instant backstory. But it also allows these kids to play music that is their own. They're not trying to kid anyone that they're playing the blues, cause that just didn't fly—no one would believe that 12-year-old Van Morrison was playing the blues. So, skiffle became a kind of halfway-house to African-American culture.
I think that sense of the guitar being a symbol of a new generation that rejects their parents' values is really key as well, because the guitar was not a familiar instrument in British culture up until that point. So they're kind of stepping out of British post-war culture and into something different in a make-do and mend society, where everything [was] handed down to them, because clothing was rationed as well as food. By taking up the guitar, they're fabricating their own culture; they're not waiting for someone else to hand it down to them. I think that is really significant—that liberation, to say, "This is ours and nobody else's, even if you grownups don't like it.' It's punk rock. I mean, that's what drew me to it so much.
I think having grown up in a time of war and then rationing, there was a lot of suppressed want in that generation. When "Rock Around The Clock" came out in 1955, and the BBC didn't really play it, you could argue that the BBC kind of rationed rock 'n' roll, which was too much to bear for these kids. Skiffle gives them the opportunity to make their own music on their own terms.
You also note how skiffle was as much of a phenomenon for teenage girls as it was for boys.
[Young women] really were the drivers of this. They couldn't go into pubs, because it was socially unacceptable to go into a pub without a man; they didn't want to go into the corner tea shops their parents took them to. So they found the cappuccino bars, and [these] were very sophisticated places, because they looked to Rome and Paris and Milan. Young women were much more in the vanguard of things than boys. They colonized these spaces, and that's why the skiffle boys played there: cause that's where the young women were.
You look at the footage of news reels, and the young women are always jiving with each other [while] older, ugly teddy boys are standing round the edge; they're not doing this for the benefit of guys. While the boys are playing guitars in their bedroom, the young girls are learning to jive with one another, and enjoying that.
I mean, there's nothing freer than a group of girls on a dance floor.
That's right, together. Female space is always exciting.
Girls to the front.
Amen to that.
The whole thing was such a working class phenomenon as well, which really underlines the egalitarian nature of rock n' roll and skiffle. It brought people of different races together at a time when that wasn't really a thing.
Yeah, exactly. And the way it empowered people to create their own culture, which punk did as well. Middle class and upper class kids went to college or university, and then often into professions where earning was delayed until adulthood—law, or medicine, things like that. So they don't really become visible until the sixties, when they're the hippies smoking dope. But it's the working class kids who had the edge—that's how they become visible. And the whole aspect of the scene's interracial friendships, that kinda went against racism before Rock Against Racism [a 1976 anti-racism campaign that culminated in a massive 1978 music festival featuring the Clash and Tom Robinson], y'know?
The voices of the oppressed are always going to ring truer and be more compelling than just another white boy with a guitar.
Music made by the marginalized is always going to be more powerful than music made by the mainstream. I mean, even as far as Beyoncé at the Super Bowl—having the opportunity to get into mainstream America's timeline by doing that, she took the opportunity, and BANG! Y'know?
And now there are millions of kids that saw that and were like, "Oh wait, I love Beyoncé, and Beyoncé is talking about black power and black liberation—maybe I should think more about these concepts."
I think it's more, "I'm concerned about this, and now [that] there's Beyoncé at the Super Bowl, I'm not alone!" I'm not alone—that's a very powerful message. It's a message that empowers individuals to stand up for [what] they believe in. That's what Rock Against Racism did for me: I was working in an office at the time with a bunch of guys who were casually racist, sexist, and homophobic, and I never said anything until I was like 19. I went to Rock Against Racism, and not only were there one hundred thousand kids just like me, but there were gay people there. I'd never met any out gay men, and there were men kissing there, and I understood: ultimately the fight against fascism is a fight against discrimination of all kinds, whether it's sexism, racism, homophobia, whatever.
And when I went back to work, I knew I wasn't alone. I knew that behind me, my generation were going to define themselves in this way, so I was willing to take on these older guys. It wasn't the bands that gave me the courage of my convictions; it was really about being in that audience and realizing I wasn't the only one who cared about this. And I think that's what Beyoncé did at the Super Bowl. She said to everybody else who was concerned about Black Lives Matter, "This is not a marginal issue; this is right at the core of American culture." That's a powerful message to someone who feels isolated and concerned. I think that's how music works, how music makes a difference.
I think hip-hop is now the mainstream of popular music, rather than rock. I think the rock period has passed, and rock is headed to that corner of the record shelf where jazz and folk live, maybe within our lifetime. Rock will be in the corner, and it'll be reduced to just a couple dozen of the big, big bands, and the rest of it will be on Spotify if you wanna find it.
That's a depressing thought for rock fans.
Nah, that's the way it goes. I mean, why should guitar rock dominate for another thirty years, now that the lingua franca is hip-hop. I mean that's just the next phase; I'm not complaining about it. Because in my country, the most dynamic music—the music with the most edge, the music with the most politics—is grime.
When people ask me, "Where are the political songwriters?," I play them grime, because if you're looking for white boys with guitars, Ed Sheeran's over there—help yourself, have as much as you like. But the grime community, they were the only genre who came out in support of Jeremy Corbyn at the election. There was a "grime for Corbyn" hashtag, and I think it's because they're still using that music to talk to one another like we used punk in the 20th century. It's their way of getting in your timeline and my timeline.
Since you brought up Jeremy Corbyn, I did want to talk to you about your support for him, and your legacy as a political singer.
I always say that I'm not a political singer; I'm an angry singer. I write about things that piss me off. Sometimes it's relationships, sometimes it's weather, sometimes it's politics. And then I go out there and sing my truths in the dark, and everybody applauds and I don't feel half so bad about it, you know? I feel like it's a form of sort of absolution, and that's what music can do for you. Our currency is empathy.
Solidarity. At it's absolute basic level, that's what solidarity is. And you can get that from music, whether you're political or not. Say you go to an Adele concert, and you've got a song that you've invested a particular emotion in, and it's sort of intertwined [with] that song. And when she sings that song, and 10,000 other people sing that song as well, they're kind of accepting whatever it is you've connected with that, validating that. And I think that's a really important thing. You can't get that on the internet. That's why music will continue to draw people, I think.
Yeah, especially if you're coming from a marginalized community where you're told by everyone else that you're wrong, or that who you are or who you love is wrong.
Yeah, you get that affirmation. There are songs where you feel people read your mind. That's kinda important, that feeling of, "I feel like the guy in the song." It's all about making you feel something for someone you've never met—either the protagonist in the song, or a character in the song. And at a time when empathy is under attack by the forces of the alt-right, anyone who expresses any sort of compassion these days is immediately accused of being politically correct, or of virtue-signaling. Because they're afraid of empathy.
If you mix empathy it with activism, you get solidarity. And that's what really scares them: the idea that people will come together and bring about change from below, rather than accepting it from above. I think that's why they want you to feel you're on your own, 'cause if you don't feel you're on your own, then you're empowered. They want you to think nobody gives a shit about all this stuff.
A lot of people certainly give a shit now that things have all gone wrong, but it was a lot different before this past election.
There's more than one America, I think, [just as] there's more than one Britain. There isn't any "This is who we are"—we're multitudes, and always were. The first single I put out took its title from a Francisco Goya etching called The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, and I feel very much that that's where we are at the moment: we're in the sleep of reason. Until we are able to wake ourselves up from that, and address the genuine issues that ordinary working people have about employment, about housing, about health, we're not going to get any progress. Neoliberalism has sacked our economies, sacked our manufacturing. And no one's offering a real way of bringing back security and prosperity.
And that's part of how we ended up with Trump.
I don't understand what leads people to that sort of place. I mean, in some ways I can understand the impulse behind Brexit and Trump, because the thing that always worried me about Hillary is that she wasn't a change candidate. If your life has been made chaotic by economic decisions beyond your control, and you're just being offered more of the same, then you're going to say, "I'm going to make everybody else feel the chaos as well. I'm going to vote for chaos." And that's what Trump is, and that's what Brexit was. It was like chucking shit at the fan—"Fuck you, the economy is gonna go to hell, yeah, but we're going down together now. Not just me."
On a brighter note, at least Corbyn's been making some serious waves on your side of the pond.
Well, I'm encouraged that it was young people who came out and voted in the election that deprived Theresa May of a majority. You know, we were at Glastonbury when Brexit went down. I went to get a coffee the morning after, and I was in the queue, and a couple of young guys, probably in their late twenties, were behind me and recognized me. And they were like, "Oh, Brexit, what are you going to do?"
I said, "What am I going to fucking do? By the time this goes down, I'll have retired. What are you going to do? This is your future that's just been kicked to the curb!" And so, I'm so ever so pleased that at Glastonbury this year, two weeks after the election, they were chanting [Corbyn's] name to the tune of "Seven Nation Army."
I think a progressive is someone who believes a society should be re-ordered, so that everybody has the opportunity and the means by which to reach their full potential. It doesn't have to be ideological anymore—it has to be broader than that. Inclusive. It really seems to me that this generation is awake now, and are sharpening their spears, and that when the time comes, we'll be able to resolve this in a positive way. I have hope in a way I didn't have before.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey by day and a political organizer by night. Follow her on Twitter.