Billy Bragg: in the footsteps of Guthrie and Seeger

Mark Ellen / 28 April 2014

Billy Bragg talks about Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, John Peel and Latitude.

Ask Billy Bragg how he got his big break and this is what he’ll tell you. ‘I was playing football with some mates in Hyde Park – this was May, 1983 – and we stopped to drink beer and listen to the car radio and John Peel was doing his Radio 1 show and complaining he was hungry: “I’d do anything for a mushroom biryani”. So, as I was half a mile from Broadcasting House, I raced over there, nipped into a take-away off Oxford Street, bought one and charged into reception.

John Peel playlist 

‘The doorman thought Peel had ordered it, so he rang the studio and Peel came down. I told him I’d dropped off a copy of my album earlier. He played a track from it later and said, “Thanks for the mushroom biryani, Billy Bragg. I was going to play your record anyway”.’

This is textbook Billy Bragg – humble, practical, charitable, and only very softly self-interested. For more than 30 years he’s ploughed the same furrow – bruised love songs set in the real world, like the marvellous ballad Shirley, or stirring anthems on behalf of the dispossessed, such as Between the Wars about the miners’ strike of the mid-Eighties, which he famously sang live on Top of the Pops when all the other acts were miming.

When I first ran into him, decades ago, he was busking with a guitar in Carnaby Street to advertise the very disc he’d dropped off at the BBC, his first album Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy. Assuming it would never get any radio play, he’d put a battery-operated amplifier in a backpack, attached speakers and was wandering round Soho performing it. 

Rousing crowds 

Watching him outside the Festival Hall a few years ago, stirring a South Bank crowd into a rousing chorus of Stand By Me, it struck me that he’s barely changed in the past three decades – same attitude, same stance, same shirt possibly. At some stage he grew a beard, but otherwise the 56-year-old has remained proudly unaltered.

‘And what a fabulous beard,’ he says, patting his salt-and-pepper thatch fondly. ‘It’s about to come on tour with me. The reason I haven’t changed is that I’m a folk singer. Pete Seeger never changed,’ he says of his hero, the campaigning author of Where Have All the Flowers Gone? who died at the age of 94.

‘He stayed true to his principles all his life. The reason I admire Seeger more than, say, Bruce Springsteen is that Bruce never hitchhiked across America with Woody Guthrie. He was never blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and unable to work for five years. He never stood alongside Paul Robeson at the Peekskill Riots when the Ku Klux Klan were throwing bricks at him.

Meeting Pete Seeger 

‘Whenever I met Seeger I felt one handshake away from all of those people. I was in the presence of history.’

Like Seeger, whom he calls ‘a singing Twitter account’, Bragg has always had a workmanlike approach to his music. An outspoken opponent of racism, sexism and homophobia, he’s always struck me as a manual labourer whose job is writing poetry.

‘That’s not bad actually. It certainly feels like manual labour some days, though I’m mighty glad I’m not on a building site mixing cement! But whether it’s love songs or political songs, I’m just trying to join the dots for people, throwing ideas out and trying to get them to see things from another perspective.’

Music hall tradition 

It’s the same tradition as Woody Guthrie, his other great hero. ‘Woody would travel round the States, take the story of the dustbowl refugees and put it on the radio. Both he and Seeger retained the vision for what they were doing and just carried on doing it.

‘Though I don’t like being labelled a political songwriter,’ he adds. ‘It sounds a bit dour and I’m more engaging than that. There’s a touch of Max Miller in what I do, elements of music hall. I like to think I have an ear for the ridiculous!

‘With festivals, like Latitude, you never know what the situation’s going to be like – the crowd, the sound. You need to have that busker mentality and do what you came to do, whatever the day throws at you. So in many ways I’m still a glorified busker.’

Billy Bragg's playlist

  • Winter (2009 remaster) The Rolling Stones
  • Face for the Radio The View
  • San Diego Serenade Tom Waits
  • First Night The Hold Steady
  • Gentle on my Mind Glen Campbell
  • 24-25 Kings of Convenience
  • Appalachian Spring: Allegro Aaron Copland
  • Still Water (Love) Four Tops
  • Dancing in the Moonlight Thin Lizzy
  • The Mountain Steve Earle, Del McCoury Band

Visit Billy Bragg's official website here 

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