When he's not playing The Milkman of Human Kindness, Billy Bragg is Mr. Love & Justice, a political songwriter who leavens his forthright anger with a generous humanism, and a writer of love songs who explores those moments when we're more than just political creatures. Bragg, who made his name in Thatcher's England with just an electric guitar and a sensibility equally indebted to The Clash and Woody Guthrie, gives us those catchy stage names: The Milkman of Human Kindness being a song from his brash, straight-forward 1983 debut EP; Mr. Love & Justice being the title of his most recent full-length, released in 2008.
Much of Bragg's work is concerned with self-definition, with what it means to be a so-called "progressive patriot" (there's another appellation supplied by Bragg, from the title of his memoir), and to feel wedded to one's country and people but not all its traditions. So it makes sense that Bragg's entry in the Identity Project, a nine-month series mounted by London's Wellcome Collection, was a play, Pressure Drop, devoted to exploring British identity and loyalty and partially based on his memoir. Premiered in April 2010, Pressure Drop depicts, according to a Telegraph review, "a typical white working-class family who are caught up in the multicultural thick of it in Bragg's hometown of Barking, Essex." Bragg contributed music to each performance, leading a three-piece band, while the action was staged on sets modeled on Bragg's old stomping grounds.
The play's run coincided with British national elections that saw the rise to power of David Cameron as prime minister, and the defeat of the nationalist British National Party on both local and national levels. Bragg invested time and energy in opposing the BNP's candidates in his birthplace of Barking (a suburb of East London), where an outright victory for the BNP would have earned the party majority rule on the town council.
Bragg talked with NUVO last month about Pressure Drop, the global anti-racist struggle and an upcoming album with Joe Henry and Roseanne Cash.
On Pressure Drop...
It was a very interesting juxtaposition between the play that we were performing about how working-class families are trying to deal with these kinds of issue and the election, when immigration was quite a big issue. By night I was performing in the play, singing these songs, watching these issues being portrayed. By day I was out in East London, where I come from, taking part in a political campaign to try to defeat the anti-immigrant party. It had a very strange convergence of reality and the play, which really informed both what I was doing out on the streets, and also what I was doing in the theater.
We took themes from my book, The Progressive Patriot. Because in order to talk about why I love my country, I have to talk a lot about place. I believe that if being English means anything, it's more to do with where you are than where your grandparents are from. So in order to articulate that, I have to talk about the environment I grew up in. So there's a lot of local history in The Progressive Patriot. It was that that the playwright, Nick Gordon, picked up on. And me and him walked around my hometown, I looked at places and I told him stories, and bits of those stories ended up in the play.
And that was weird because I'm sitting there every night [during the play's run], and they're talking about these pubs and these roads and stuff, and not only is it my hometown, but it's also my hometown that's under attack from these fascists. And in the back of my mind every night, was — the election is coming, what happens if I'm sitting here next week and the fascists have taken over my hometown. What am I going to do? The night that they were defeated was very, very emotional. The results came too late for the audience to know. It was me who told the audience that they'd been wiped out, that the BNP [British National Party] had been wiped out. So it was a very emotional night.
On Prison Guitar Doors, Bragg's initiative (which takes its name from a Clash song) to provide instruments to prison inmates as a means towards rehabilitation...
My experience in holding songwriting workshops is that self-expression leads to self-confidence. And one of the real problems that you have with people that have just come out of prison is that they have very low self-esteem. And often the decisions that they take are taken in the first couple of months when they come out, whether they try to make a go at their life, or whether they backslide back into the habits that saw them incarcerated in the first place. So what we're trying to do with Jail Guitar Doors is give them a manner to address those issues, deal with those issues. I've never thought about this before, but I think one of the reasons why I'm a political songwriter is that I write songs as therapy. I write the songs about the things that piss me off. Sometimes that's politics, sometimes that's relationships — sometimes it's me that pisses me off. I haven't really thought of it that way before, but having worked with inmate in prisons here in the U.K., I'm coming to that conclusion very quickly.
On his support of an boycott of Arizona by performing artists...
I haven't been down there for quite a few years, but I'm willing to add my voice to opposing what's clearly designed to be a kind of racist profiling. The thing about opposing racism is it doesn't matter where you're from, really. I've gotten a lot of criticism about going back to my hometown to campaign against the racists because I don't live there any more. But even if I hadn't come from that town, I would still have come and campaigned, because I know my history, I know how this shit ends. It's up to people to be vigilant and make sure that we don't demonize people, whether they're immigrants or Muslims or Mexicans or whatever. People have got to be treated as individuals, rather than racially, ethnically or religiously profiled.
On an upcoming project with Joe Henry and Roseanne Cash...
Joe Henry brought me and Roseanne with him to Germany to do some shows as part of a biennial concert program put together in a city called Bochum. And our voices worked together really well, and we really enjoyed it, so since then we've been trying to work out how to get in the studio for a week to see if we could come up with something exciting. It helps that Joe and I are on the same label, and Roseanne's label seems willing to play ball, so we can all get together in Los Angeles in November and record some brand-new songs...I'm certainly writing songs, and when I've got more formed ideas, I'll probably send them over to Joe and Roseanne to have a look it.
On his formative years...
I came up in a very political time. I was inspired by punk rock; I was making records during the Reagan and Thatcher era. I couldn't really be any other way. I've just been writing an article today about what the Labor Party might do next for a Website. So I'm always interested in making a contribution. There's no other way I can do this. It's the bed I have made and I'm willing to lie in it. And the actual thing is, I don't mind being labeled as a political songwriter, it's being dismissed as a political songwriter that pisses me off. People who think that just because they know my politics they know everything I'm going to say. Part of my job is trying to fly against that, to come up with original ideas that people aren't expecting.
On Otis Gibbs, the Indianapolis-born singer-songwriter who has opened for Bragg on several tours...
What a lovely fella! (NUVO: And he's now moved to Nashville.) Well that's where the work is, I guess. But he always speaks very highly of his Indiana home.
On Joe Hill's ashes and Otis...
Abbie Hoffman, who was one of the great American radicals of the 1960s, came up with this idea, 20 years ago now. When some of Joe Hill's ashes were discovered, the FBI had impounded a tiny sachet of Hill's ashes. Joe Hill famously said he wanted to be buried anywhere except in the state of Utah. And what the Wobblies did is they sent a little sachet of Joe's ashes to every state in the Union. And somewhere along the way, the FBI had impounded Joe's ashes. This is in 1917, shortly after he was murdered, or killed. And in the 1980s, slightly embarrassed about this, they contacted the IWW and said, "What do you want us to do with these ashes? We've got them." And the Wobblies asked for them back.
And once they got them back, they put an article in their newspaper - What should we do with Joe's ashes? And Abbie Hoffman, who I had been working with for a while in the U.S. in the late '80s, he wrote to the Wobbly newspaper and said, "People like Billy Bragg should eat them." And then when Billy dies, he should be cremated, and we should eat his ashes, so it should carry on. Which I thought was a typically Abbie Hoffman-esque way of dealing with it. I read it with a smile on my face.
And then a few years later, I was doing a gig in Chicago, where the IWW have their headquarters. And after the show, these people came along rather sheepishly and said, "Did you ever read that article about by Joe Hill's ashes by Abbie Hoffman." And I said, "Yeah, yeah." Sadly, Abbie had subsequently died, which added a little bit of poignancy to it. And they said, "Well, look. In the memory of Abbie, really, as much as anything else, we have some of Joe's ashes here, and we'd really like to offer you the opportunity to eat some of them." So we bought some union beer, and we each took a little bit of Joe's ashes, me and my road manager, and we drank them down.
Now, Abbey had actually said, people like Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked should eat them. So they gave me another bit for Michelle Shocked, which I had folded in a page in the Little Red Songbook in a little plastic wallet. And I haven't seen Michelle since, and subsequently, I think she's become a born-again Christian, which I have absolutely no problem with, but that's her business. I thought, maybe, perhaps, she may not be the person that Joe had in mind. So as part of a UK tour, when Otis came to the house with his IWW hat, I suddenly thought, Now's my chance to do my duty to Joe and for Abbey and the Wobblies. So I offered Otis a chance to partake of the body of Joe, and he did, and so he's part of it too now. And I can't think of a better candidate, quite frankly, for keeping alive the flames of the IWW. It was very, very pleased to be able to do that.
There was only one tiny fragment, and I just washed it down. I just choked it down. It just tasted like union beer. It's as much for Abbey as for Joe and the Wobbs. I think it's the crazy sort of thing you would expect from someone who had lived the life that Abbie did. Obviously, there was no way I could know Joe Hill, but I knew Abbie, and he was a warm, crazy human being. I respect his wishes, and I carry a little bit of Joe around with me, and so does Otis.