In an entertainment world flush with liberal tendencies, no one has stood up and shouted quite like Billy Bragg. Since the early ’80s, he’s been a passionate advocate for a host of far-left causes: socialism, anti-racism, the Occupy movement, reform of Britain’s parliamentary system, and support for LGBTQ rights. While some of Bragg’s beliefs have been adopted by the mainstream, the so-called Bard of Barking has never tempered his confrontational, Clash-inspired message. The beautiful Mermaid Avenue sessions Bragg completed with Wilco around Y2K, in which unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics were set to original music, did introduce Bragg, and surely Guthrie himself, to a wider American audience.
And now Bragg is touring the States with fellow-folkie Joe Henry, singing songs from their recent collaborative album, Shine a Light, which was inspired by a 2,800-mile railroad journey from Chicago to LA.
But Billy Bragg manages to focus equally on the past, the present and the future, chatting at length with Folio Weekly about the state of our presidential campaign, the cancer of cynicism and the power of song. Here it is, edited only for clarity. And as you’ll know, when you attend Magnolia Fest on Oct. 15, Mr. Bragg is one eloquent dude.
Folio Weekly: You were in Washington, D.C., the night of our first presidential debate. What did you think?
Billy Bragg: I think Hillary did herself a lot of favors. She looked presidential, and it was easy for her to get Donald riled. If that’s how he deals with a presidential debate, the worry is, how will he deal with diplomacy? I can’t tell you how all that talk about NATO will go down in my country, though. NATO is the cornerstone of American hegemony. If you want to have an empire, you have to pay for it. You can’t make the parts of the empire pay for it. The way Trump talks about stiffing providers — the people who’ve done work for him — he’s treating us like that.
You were a vocal opponent of the Brexit vote in your country. What lessons can the U.S. learn from that experience?
The key takeaway is that none of us believed it would happen. We didn’t think the British people would be so foolish to put so much of our security and international reputation in jeopardy, just out of anger or as a means of lashing out at Westminster. But they did, so I can only implore my American friends to not be complacent in November.
You and Joe Henry are touring behind Shine a Light. What drove you to pursue the railroad-inspired project?
A number of reasons: First, the railroad plays a very important role in the roots of our common culture. But the effect it had in the USA was phenomenal — possibly greater than any other technology in human existence. Before the railroads came, it wasn’t possible to travel faster than a horse could go or a boat could sail. It wasn’t practical to build a city anywhere but on the coast or on the river. In my country, you can’t just get on a train and escape jurisdiction by crossing the state line like you can in America. So Britain does not have a great tradition of railroad songs — the closest equivalent are sea shanties. But in some ways, the railroad as a means of transport has been forgotten in the USA, which is odd because it still plays a key part in the economy. You put more freight on rail — 43 percent — than the rest of the industrialized world. Without railroads, your economy would be in serious trouble. Distribution networks would break down. So getting on the railroad and recording these songs put a focus back on what it’s like to travel on trains in America.
You’re performing here in St. Augustine as part of the 2016 Magnolia Fest, which celebrates Stetson Kennedy’s 100th centennial. What does Stetson Kennedy’s legacy mean to you?
Stetson made a huge contribution in the campaign against racism, which was the issue that politicized England in the 1980s. When I got involved, it was made clear to me that this wasn’t something my generation discovered. By standing up against discrimination of all kinds, particularly in his work against the Klan in the South, Stetson contributed to an important, long-standing tradition. His connection with Woody Guthrie obviously brought me into his orbit as well. So I’m pleased to celebrate his 100th birthday. I had the privilege of meeting Stetson when I played the Harvest of Hope Festival in 2007, so it’ll be nice to come back and work with people still trying to promote his ideas.
You’ve been an activist for 35 years. Do you still feel as motivated as you did when you were a young man?
If you’re going to be a progressive, you have to be a glass-half-full person. If you believe the glass is always half-empty, it’s difficult to connect with the rest of humanity. And doing that seems to me to be a central tenet of any progressive idea. The enemy of everyone who wants to make the world a better place is not capitalism or conservatism — it’s cynicism. And by cynicism, I don’t mean doubt or skepticism; doubt is healthy. Never trust anyone who has no doubts. Donald Trump has no doubts. Skepticism can be constructive. A cynic to me is someone who’s given up completely — and they’d like you to give up as well because it makes them feel better. I don’t have time for those people in my life. I do everything I can to keep my cynicism in check, tough as it is sometimes.
In today’s world, that takes serious intestinal fortitude.
It comes from Woody, actually. He never wrote a cynical song in his life. He hated songs that put people down. You learn from him that when you sing a song, you’re taking a stand. You’re expressing your principles in front of an audience. Think about how powerful it is for a football player to kneel during the national anthem. A very simple gesture, but when you see the amount of discussion that’s provoked, you realize that taking a stand still resonates with people. Music has the ability to do that much more strongly than a mere tweet or an argument on 4Chan or something like that.
Do you see a lot of younger musicians fulfilling that activist role?
They are out there. But music no longer has the vanguard role it had in the 20th century. We didn’t think of it in these terms at the time, but music was our sole social medium. It was the way by which we talked to one another and decided what style of clothes we wore. Cars, politics, love … everything went through that medium. Now, music is no longer the place where everyone gathers. So it’s harder for young, up-and-coming political songwriters to make headway. I still think people want music to have something to say. And I don’t think it has to be capital-P “political.” This is going to be the first generation since World War II to grow up poorer than their parents, so I’m looking for young artists to tell us about the pressure they’re under. I want to hear about how angry they are.