For four decades, Billy Bragg’s music has been a soundtrack to the British workers’ movement, enriching its long tradition of political songwriting. In an interview with Jacobin, he explains why his songs about socialism are also love songs.
Billy Bragg performs during the All Together Now Festival 2023 in Waterford, Ireland. (Debbie Hickey / Getty Images)
Billy Bragg needs little introduction. Active since the late 1970s, his profile as a singer-songwriter and committed activist came into view the following decade, particularly during the miners’ strike of 1984–85, when his songs and performances directly attacked Thatcherism and its policies toward Britain’s working class. In 1985, Bragg was among the founders of Red Wedge, a musicians’ collective that supported the Labour Party. Called a “one-man Clash,” he has built a repertoire including originals like “A New England” (1983) and “There Is Power in a Union” (1986) as well as updated versions of the labor song “Which Side Are You On?” (1931) and the communist anthem “The Internationale” (1887), with Bragg writing new lyrics for each.
Late last year, Bragg released The Roaring Forty: 1983–2023, a comprehensive career retrospective consisting of fourteen CDs and over three hundred songs, including live material, B-sides, and other archival material. In this interview with Christopher J. Lee, he discusses the background to this release, his career as an activist since the 1980s, and the role of the singer-songwriter as a witness. Their far-ranging conversation touches on the war in Palestine, the connections between love songs and political songs, and why his own love for socialism remains unrequited.
Christopher J. Lee
This box set revisits your catalog, an enormous body of work. My immediate question is, what prompted you to put this all together and release it now?
Well, I wasn’t sure we’d all be around for the fiftieth [laughs]. So the fortieth seemed a good time to do it. The last time I did something like this was the twenty-fifth anniversary. A lot of stuff’s gone down since then: Mermaid Avenue, four or five additional albums, loads of between album projects. So it was about time I did another gather-together. Who knows what formats will be around in ten years’ time? Maybe we’ll all have it plugged into our ears with some kind of chip or something. So I thought I might as well do something “old school,” I suppose. That’d be a good word, wouldn’t it? A box set, a fourteen-CD box set, our “old school.”
Christopher J. Lee
I’ve been listening to it and, to be quite honest, I haven’t finished. There are just hours of material. Yet several qualities have struck me. One is the consistency. You really nailed a certain style at the start: this tight connection between your guitar playing, your voice, and your lyrics. As your career progressed, other elements were added, but listening to these albums and songs chronologically, I find that fundamental essence is persistent throughout. There’s a purity, even a stoicism. Is there a certain paradigm of the singer-songwriter that you’ve aspired to?
I get where you’re coming from. I wouldn’t say it’s a paradigm, but it is an attempt to make sense of the world with what I’ve got. There were times when I did that in a more ideological way, especially during the 1980s. But underlying it, there’s a commitment to empathy. I’ll link that to a song from my last album, The Million Things That Never Happened (2021). There’s a track on there, which I think is the key track on the album, “I Will Be Your Shield.” And it’s just me and a piano, just singing. It’s exactly the same as the very first track on side one of my first album [Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy (1983)], “The Milkman of Human Kindness.” You know I’ll be there. I’m the milkman of human kindness. I will be your shield.
So that’s kind of me. Trying to find different ways to articulate that sensibility. I’ve long believed that as musicians, the currency of what we do is empathy. We’re trying to get people to feel something. Whether it’s a love song or a political song, giving them the opportunity to draw some empathy from the song by chiming in with their experience so that they can feel they’re not alone.
Whether you’re writing a love song or a political song, they’re still about compassion.
You can get that same feeling from dance music. Go to a club, and there’s a song that makes you just freak out. And they put it on, and everybody freaks out, and you think, “Wow, yeah, I’m not alone!” You know? You can’t get that feeling online.
That experience has always been key to what I do. If you’re looking for a thread, that’s it. Whether you’re writing a love song or a political song, they’re still about compassion. They’re still about my politics. They’re about empathy. It’s the same sensibility that’s just brought to bear on different subjects. It comes out in different ways.
Christopher J. Lee
You’ve long been active in working-class politics in Britain, particularly during the 1980s, as a vocal critic of Thatcherism. Your body of work offers a political education and falls into a very strong tradition of political songwriting.
Even more so during the 1980s, because in the pre-internet age, I was literally bringing information from one place to another. When I came to the United States in 1984, I was singing “Which Side Are You On?” But why am I singing this American labor song? Because we were having this situation in the UK [the miners’ strike of 1984–85].
After shows, people would talk to me about stuff that was happening with labor politics in their town or their city or their industry. I would then take that information back to the UK. It’s what Woody Guthrie did, really. It’s absolutely a key part of that role.
Obviously, that’s been superseded now by the internet, where you can find out anything going on anywhere. But you still have an opportunity to draw people’s attention to things that aren’t on their event horizon. And I think that’s an important part of the role we have as communicators and as songwriters.
Christopher J. Lee
I’ve read that you were initially inspired by the Clash. You came of age as a musician during the 1980s during the post-punk period. Yet you also reference earlier traditions like Guthrie’s, as just mentioned.
In 1984, the most common analogy that journalists in the UK used to define me was a “one-man Clash.” When I came to America, they started making references to Woody. They saw a different tradition in what I was doing. Not just a singer-songwriter, not James Taylor, not Bob Dylan, but Woody.
A guy standing there with an electric guitar, singing in his own accent about unions. What? Nobody was doing that.
I knew Woody. I didn’t know a huge amount about him, but I knew who he was. I knew his songs because I listened to a lot of American singer-songwriters from the 1960s and 1970s. And if you listen to those albums, you learn these songs through osmosis. They all did different versions, Ry Cooder and Arlo Guthrie and those guys. But I hadn’t made the Woody connection. That was something that people wrote about and caused me to double back and check out and also discover new songwriters.
For instance, I’d never heard of Joe Hill before I came to the US, and because I was singing union songs, talking about the coal miners’ strike, people started talking to me, “You know, have you heard of Joe Hill?” And through artists like Utah Phillips and others, I was able to discover a tradition that had influenced the UK. Florence Reece’s song “Which Side Are You On?” had crossed the Atlantic, but it wasn’t my own tradition.
So that was very interesting. But, you know, you’re right. I was also referencing punk because music had moved into a post-punk thing, had gone the opposite way, where style had returned to dominate content, and I was content over style. But that ability to zig while everybody else was zagging gave me some space to make a name for myself.
It was the same in the US. A guy standing there with an electric guitar, singing in his own accent about unions. What? Nobody was doing that. When I came out and played with Echo and the Bunnymen, people were either utterly appalled or totally blown away. There was no kind of, “Oh, it’s just a guy with a guitar.” It was like, “What the fucking hell is that?”
I wasn’t even billed. But those crazy American kids who were at college radio stations and who read the English music papers — they knew, and they took me to heart. They were the people who really made my career in the US.
There were bands that were writing lyrics that you wanted to know. R.E.M, the Smiths, and the Pogues. I was part of that.
Christopher J. Lee
Were there other bands of the time that you identified with?
I think the key for me was lyrics. There were bands that were writing lyrics that you wanted to know. R.E.M, the Smiths, and the Pogues. I was part of that. I wrote words and my words said something. I think the path, for someone like me writing lyrics and talking about the world, was a path cut by the Smiths, by R.E.M, by the bands that were trying to make sense of the world and not escape from it. The Pogues and R.E.M. were trying to engage with the world, and that’s what I was doing too. So I was very fortunate to be around at that time when the focus came back to lyrics and activism.
Christopher J. Lee
Were particular authors or political thinkers also sources for you?
Of all the political writers, George Orwell is probably most influential. I never was one for the theory of politics. I was much more for the doing and the observing of politics, trying to make sense of it without the dialectic, without all the abstract language of Marxism. I was more influenced by those people who were trying to make sense of the world for themselves by writing, like Howard Zinn. I read a lot of Zinn, learned a lot about the United States from reading his books — A People’s History of the United States, stuff like that.
Christopher J. Lee
Returning to the 1980s and the “doing” of politics, Thatcherism was awful, but it also galvanized an amazing range of intellectuals who responded to it. I am thinking of figures like Stuart Hall and Tariq Ali. Terrible political moments can also be very generative, culturally and intellectually. Is that something you think about in relation to your own work?
When the miners’ strike happened, it was my class that Margaret Thatcher was attacking. This was going to be a year of class war, and I knew where I stood on that.
I try not to think it’s tied to that. You don’t have to have your heart broken to write good love songs. If you have some imagination, you should be able to come up with those things. But certainly, in terms of making people aware of a situation, when someone provocative like Trump or Thatcher comes along, that can make a difference.
That’s how I was politicized. Thatcher picking on the working class and people like myself. Things that she said affected my life — so when the miners’ strike happened, it was my class that she was attacking. This was going to be a year of class war, and I knew where I stood on that. So it was a no-brainer for me to support them. It does focus people’s solidarity and activism.
But I do worry that we sometimes get nostalgic for Thatcher and the miners’ strike. I’m not really interested in that. I had to stop playing “Between the Wars” for a while because I worried people were getting a bit nostalgic with it. I’d much rather present a new song that’s looking at where we are now rather than looking back.
Paradoxically, a song which I wrote back then, “There is Power in a Union,” is now a key one in my set because there are people in my audience who weren’t born when I wrote it, who in the last eighteen months have been on a picket line. They are teachers, nurses, college lecturers; they’re working on the railways. When I come to America, they’re in the UAW. They’ve been working at Starbucks. At Amazon, they’ve been fighting for a union.
I certainly recharge my bloody activism every night when I go out there and sing those songs, and everyone cheers. You know, it fires me up.
So they may have sung that song on a picket line — I don’t know. But they come to the show because they realize that sensibility is going to be expressed, and they use it to recharge their activism.
That’s what I’m all about. I certainly recharge my bloody activism every night when I go out there and sing those songs, and everyone cheers. You know, it fires me up. I think my job is to fire them up as well and send them away with their activism recharged.
Christopher J. Lee
Building on that, I am curious if you could speak about the songwriter as witness. We often talk about the poet as witness or the journalist as witness, the idea that there are certain occupational roles that are essentially about witnessing history, being the person who witnesses something vital in order to communicate that to the rest of the world. It seems like you’re also very much in that role. I don’t think many songwriters frame themselves that way, but I feel like you do. Not to impose that on you.
You’re not imposing anything. You’re absolutely right. But what you need to do in that role is to ensure that you’re talking about things that aren’t being covered in the mainstream. So you write about an issue that’s in the mainstream but from a perspective that’s not reflected to try and send people away thinking about the issue rather than just having their opinions justified. That’s what I try to do.
In some moments in the set, in a song like “There Is Power in a Union,” I am singing to people who broadly agree with me. I wouldn’t say I’m singing to the choir. What I’m trying to do is fire people up, to recharge their activism and kick their cynicism to the curb. But I also have to talk about some issues that are going to challenge them. I try to make sure I have some things in there that send them away questioning the box they think I fit into.
You’ve got to make sure that you’re not just providing a nostalgia show.
Around 2000, I started writing about identity, about Englishness and the need to generate a progressive sense of belonging. Now the issue that I talk about that creates the most sparks is the rights of the trans community. But I need to do that because I think you’ve got to make sure that you’re not just providing a nostalgia show. You want your audience to maintain their relevance, and you need to maintain your own relevance too. You have to up your game.
In that sense, I am witnessing things, but I’m trying to bear witness to things that they don’t necessarily want to witness, if you see what I mean. You know, we all see the same stars in the sky, but it’s how you join those dots together in an interesting way that gives people a different perspective. And that’s your job, that’s the justification for creating any art, isn’t it?
Christopher J. Lee
Right now the world is gripped by what’s going on with Gaza. Rather than just telling me your take, I’m interested in how you as a songwriter approach pressing situations like this, as somebody who’s trying to articulate complexity and bring out elements that are overlooked by the mainstream.
What I’m looking for is truth. It’s absolutely true that what Hamas did on October 7 is unacceptable, unspeakable. To kill innocent people, to take people hostage is an unspeakable atrocity. It’s also true that what Israel is doing by bombarding one of the most densely populated areas on earth and killing innocent civilians, many of them children, is equally unacceptable. We all know that. Most sensible people accept that.
So what have I got to offer? That’s a different perspective. I would say this: I think there’s a fundamental truth that the situation in the Middle East cannot be resolved without involving the Palestinians in the process of creating peace. Unfortunately, Israel and the other Arab nations that signed the Abraham Accords were seeking to resolve the issue without taking the Palestinians into account. What seemed to be the imminent addition of Saudi Arabia to the Abraham Accords, further normalizing relationships with Israel, suggested even more that the Arab nations were going to accept this without dealing with the Palestinian issue.
Israel and the other Arab nations that signed the Abraham Accords were seeking to resolve the issue without taking the Palestinians into account.
In no way am I condoning this, but Hamas have now made that impossible. They have said, “No, you cannot do this without resolving the Palestinian issue.” Even if Israel flattens Gaza, they will still have to deal with the Palestinian issue, the Palestinian people. To imagine that it could be done without the Palestinians has brought about a terrible, terrible calamity on Israel.
The two main truths I’ve got, which everyone’s got, are the terribleness of October 7 and the awfulness of the bombardment of Gaza.
Christopher J. Lee
As a singer-songwriter, you aren’t necessarily obligated to speak about everything in the world. But are there situations that you as an artist wanted to engage with but perhaps found difficult to address?
During the 1980s, I tried very hard to write a song about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And I just couldn’t do it. I tried a number of different perspectives. I played the songs to people, and they were like, “Oh, Bill, that’s a bit, you know, it’s just a bit off.” It was only after peace was declared, after the Good Friday Agreement, that I was able to write a song about how normal Belfast looked without soldiers.
So there are issues like that, maybe because I was too close to it, because I was aware of too many dimensions that I was unable to get to grips with. So it’s not just, “I’ll write something about this today.” It’s really about, “Do I have something to say here?”
Christopher J. Lee
It seems this is perhaps where indirection is useful — that is, going to somebody like Woody Guthrie who is dealing with a separate time and place but nonetheless promoting an ethics of solidarity and an ethics of speaking.
Not just solidarity. Woody made a point of saying he would never write a song that put people down. I learned a lot from working with the Mermaid Avenue archive about not allowing my cynicism to overcome me, to keep it at arm’s length, to do everything I can to kick its ass. You know, you never escape it. It’s always there. You don’t have to switch the TV on, read the newspaper, but you have to keep it under control.
I’ve been involved in the ideological battle. But, you know, now I just need a cuddle.
If you’re going to write songs that have compassion and empathy, you have to keep control, you know? I even wrote a song about someone who voted for Brexit called “Full English Brexit.” The first three verses are literally things I heard Brexit voters say on the telly. I tried to put them in context because the argument of the song was that, for all these things that Brexiteers had said about foreigners, the vote was actually about us, about who we are. It’s not about who they are.
My audience wasn’t too pleased with me articulating those sentiments, but, again, if you have a reputation for writing topical songs, you can’t just pander to people’s expectations. You’ve got to be challenging them as well.
Christopher J. Lee
Before we finish, across your work, you go back and forth between political songs and also songs about human relationships and love, about mutual care. Could you discuss this connection?
I’ve already partly answered that question by talking about empathy, but when you write political songs, they’re often quite strident. You need something to balance that out. I toured with bands during the miners’ strike that only played political songs that were just bang-bang, bang-bang, and it bored the shit out of me. And I liked politics. I used to say to them, “Lighten up, you love soul music, play a song, play a Smokey Robinson song for fuck’s sake.”
The attractive thing about Billy Bragg, I think for some people, was both my politics as well as my love songs and a willingness to show that vulnerability, a willingness to show that I had doubts about both. I wasn’t trying to put myself up there as someone who had all the answers and who was going to come and sweep you off your feet and everything.
I am actually more like the person in “A New England”: “I don’t want to change the world / I’m just looking for another girl.” I’ve been involved in the ideological battle. But, you know, now I just need a cuddle. I just need someone to hug. Never trust anyone who doesn’t have any doubts.
You know, I have an unrequited love for socialism. That’s one concluding way of answering your question. It fits right in with who I am, right?Original post