Billy Bragg’s Guide to the Music of Dissent
OPEN SOURCE WITH CHRISTOPHER LYDON 7.27.17
I’m Christopher Lydon. This is Open Source. The English troubadour Billy Bragg says it’s Britain’s turn in the sun again, in a long contest to write the pop songs of our discontent. It’s not his country Billy Bragg is rooting for here — it’s the sound and spirit of dissent in songs to capture the no-vote, non-conformism, none-of-the-above youthful rebellion, the popular pressure for change in Brexit Britain and Donald Trump’s America. Grime is the new genre label to listen for,
[Stomzy — “Shut Up” plays]
In England’s biggest music festival this summer, Grime superstars were the warm-up act for the labor party rock star, Jeremy Corbyn.
Jeremy Corbyn: Politics is actually about everyday life. It’s about all of us. What we dream, what we want, what we achieve, and what we want for everybody else. You know what? The commentariat got it wrong. The elite got it wrong.
Billy Bragg is a white English working-class lefty from way back. On an American music map he’d be a child of Woody Guthrie in the Pete Seeger / Bob Dylan / Bruce Springsteen zone of songwriters that don’t have to change history but organize it in people’s heads. Grime is the end of Billy Bragg’s story. His new book about Roots, Radicals and Rockers, begins with skiffle in the 1950s, when a Glasgow boy, Lonnie Donegan, had a big hit song about an American railroad:
Billy Bragg: I think for that generation of music makers context is everything. Because, not Donegan himself, but the people that he inspired were our first teenagers. They were the first people who define themselves as not children and not yet adults; that hadn’t really happened in my country, particularly for working class youth. What happens after the war is, those kids who have grown up during the 1940s, they’ve lived through war, and once the war ended they’ve lived through sort of post-war rationing. Rationing doesn’t end; food rationing doesn’t end in the UK until June 1954 just before Donegan records Rock Island Line.
Christopher Lydon: Skiffle and Lonnie Donegan himself is the start of your story. Tell us about him.
BB: He’s born in Scotland. He grows up in London; he’s evacuated during the war; he’s not old enough to fight in the war. He’s born in the 30s like Elvis. He’s that generation, and he becomes enamored of American music while he’s doing his national service as a conscript, and he’s posted to Austria, to Vienna where he works in the quartermaster’s stores. And he has a radio tuned all day to AFN: the American Forces Network, and because so many American soldiers were Southerners, quite a number of them were African-American. There was a lot of great African-American music on; there is a lot of great country on there. He kind of came home with a love of Hank Williams, of more R&B people like Lonnie Johnson who he took his name from; his real name wasn’t Lonnie; it was Tony, Tony Donegan
In his earliest recordings he sounds a lot Roscoe Holcomb. He’s got that high lonesome sound. I don’t know where he got it from because he never was high and he may have been lonesome, but the kind of vibe that he was getting was something that wasn’t really there in British music. It was really interesting.
BB: I think in folk music appropriation is the means by which things are communicated. It’s the way you break down the racial barrier, the ethnic barrier,
CL: It’s the ideology of Open Source, the name of our show: use it, improve it. Pass it on yeah give credit and
BB: Lead Belly didn’t write Rock Island LIne. He heard that being sung; he was working with the Lomax’s when they were making a recording for the Library of Congress in a prison in Arkansas, and eight inmates came and sang Rock Island Line as a call and response song.
You know John Lomax needed a recording machine the size of a fridge in order to get the song down; Leadbelly needed to hear it twice, because he just went away and borrowed a few more verses from blues and nursery rhymes and and put that rap on the front of it and made it his own.
But who wrote it? You know, it wasn’t the prisoners who wrote it either . It’s earliest roots are in the engine repair yards of the rock island line in Biddle, which is a suburb of Little Rock. So, if it belongs to anyone, it belongs to those engineers, those African-American engineers in Little Rock.
CL: You remind us that Lonnie Donegan is the missing name in the famous observation — was it Lennon —
BB: — George Harrison
CL George Harrison’s observation that no Lead Belly no Beatles.
BB: George Harrison was asked if the Beatles were influenced by the blues. And he said yeah of course: No Lead Belly, no Lonnie Donegan. No Lonnie Donegan no Beatles. And that’s the kind of hidden truth of British rock: it’s all down to Donegan and the guys he worked with, and it’s not just him alone because there’s a bunch of guys playing trad music at the time who developed what we came to call skiffle.
CL: Unfold it — what Donegan learned from Lead Belly and what the Beatles learned from Lonnie.
BB: Well what Lonnie learned from Leadbelly was what we would broadly now refer to as the blues and how to put it across. But there was something about Donegan’s performance that had a velocity to it that other music didn’t have. I mean Lead Belly was a big figure; I mean he was a big man; he played really loud. I mean he played a 12 string guitar really loud, and Donegan kind of picked up on some of that. But the way he sang songs really fired people up in UK. He covered Tom Dooley by the Kingston Trio in 1959 added — the Kingston Trio version is quite funereal. “Hang down your head Tom Dooley” …Donegan’s version is more upbeat
That’s the difference. And very young guys, 13, 14, 15 year olds — that was the ages of Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon when they first heard Lonnie Donegan. They were really excited by this, and it inspired them to do something that had never been done in British culture before which was to pick up a guitar.
The guitar was the instrument of the outsider, of the singing cowboy, of the old blues guy who came to the country on occasion, of the Calypsonians who arrived from the Caribbean in the 1940s. It was an outsider instrument, and the guitar represented it a break with the past for the generation that picked it up at age 13, 14, 15. It was a rejection of their parents values and a way of creating their own identity and that identity was the identity of the teenager, neither child or adult. It hadn’t really been visible before in our culture.
CL: What did you take to be the politics of that spirit in the 50s?
BB: Well it was a very working class movement, skiffle, because it comes to the fore in 1955 when the first generation of war babies leave schools, and the middle class and upper class teenagers are not involved at all because they tend to go into further education and go to university and then to professions such as medicine or law. or medicine.
So really skiffle is a working class phenomena. It’s working class kids making music for other working class kids. Again ,that’s not something that’s happened in our culture. Before, songs are written in Tin Pan Alley or they come in American films. This is something different.
it’s an interesting paradox because I think in the United States of America when the folk boom became visible, there were artists like the New Lost City Ramblers, who were almost exact contemporaries of Lonnie Donegan, they used this music to find a way back, you know, they went back to Appalachia to find Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Watson. They were trying I think use that music to reconnect with the past that I felt was being lost.
Skiffle kids were doing the absolute opposite. They were trying to make the future happen. They were trying to induce a new reality by using the guitar because they’ve grown up in this rationing, wearing hand-me-down you can’t really have anything new. And when in ’55 “Rock Around the Clock” gets in the charts in the U.K. and the BBC which is the only radio station in the country barely plays, it hardly plays it, plays it every time and again, you can’t really hear on the BBC. And I think the skiffle kids thought to themselves, “you’re going to ration rock’n’roll? You think you’re going to ration rock and roll? I’ll tell you what old timer, we can do what we’re going to. We’re going to get guitars and we’re going to play this music whether you like it or not.”
I think there’s that part as well, to create your own music. I mean there’s a two-part idea: the first part is you don’t have to be a trained musician to make music. That’s clear. Donegan sung us three chords on a guitar. Anyone can play that. And the second thing is you don’t have to be an American to sing American folk songs. And these are quite important ideas, you know.
It’s like there’s a thing going on in playgrounds at the moment across the world called the fidget spinner. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. You put your fingers in the middle, you flick your wrist like that it spins round it makes a noise. I read about it in New York Times yesterday. It’s definitely happening here. It’s happening in the UK. Skiffle was more akin to that. It was like a playground craze. Every city and school boy in the UK could play three chords on either his guitar or a guitar he made with his dad or one he borrowed. And what happens then is when Chuck Berry turns up six months later playing guitar like ringing a bell, all these kids can immediately play his repertoire.
So when the Beatles have their first number one in 1964 there’s a whole cohort of British bands who’ve been playing for ages. You know, they’re road hardened, and everybody coming in right in behind them, and that’s how you get the British invasion to charge. It wasn’t an accident. It was skiffle gave those kids an 18 month edge on and on their white American contemporaries to be able to to invade the charts.
CL: So, in the wide world of skiffle enter Lennon and McCartney and George Harrison and eventually Ringo. How do you feel about that now? They took a great idea and God knows ran with it.
BB: Well, interestingly when they got to Hamburg in 1960 when they were actually called The Beatles–they were originally called The Quarrymen. The Quarrymen was Lennon’s band. He meets Paul McCartney on the 6th of June, 1957, the moment we refer to as “peak skiffle.” In the summer of skiffle they meet, and in many ways skiffle’s work is done when those two meet.
Billy Bragg is our guest. His book is Roots, Radicals and Rockers.
Coming up: Billy Bragg, the performer. Love songs have been his favorites, but politics has been his passion. This is Open Source.
Our guest Billy Bragg has been singer-songwriter and historian in the thick of the storm of styles and stars in trans-Atlantic pop music since World War 2. He was born just south of London, into the end of post-war austerity in 1957, when the rockabilly Skiffle sound was about to be overtaken by the lads from Liverpool:
BB: I first heard the Beatles or so I think it was on Sunday night at the London Palladium singing “She Loves You,” which must have been ’63 probably. One of our earliest memories. My brother was born in ’62, and that’s when we got television. So it must have been around then.
[The Beatles — “She Loves You” plays]
And yeah, they were just huge at school, although actually I’ll be honest and say I was more of a fan of Freddie and the Dreamers. I think they more appealed to a 6 year old because he kind of jumped around and was like a goof, an all around goof.
I didn’t really kind of connect with the Beatles until a bit later, until they started writing, you know, the sort of great pop hits “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” that kind of stuff. And that’s when it really started connecting with me.
CL: And when did you start–
BB: Playing guitar myself?
BB: 1974, I got my dad–I was finishing my school exams, I got my dad to buy me a guitar before the results came in, which is just as well.
CL: And where do the Beatles stand in your head then, as a kid. As a young guitar player, who were the Beatles?
BB: They were kind of the greatest band that ever lived. That was undoubtedly true, but in my taste I was much more a fan of singer songwriters and Motown and American pop soul. So I was listening to Smokey Robinson. I was listening to Marvin Gaye. I was listening to Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan. That was my man when I wanted to play guitar. Rod Stewart. I listened to a lot of Rod Stewart. The Who, I listened to a lot of. So, that was where my… The Beatles had kind of been gone by the time I got into it.
CL: And was it the sound, or was it something about the politics, the cultural stance?
BB: Well, interestingly it was the sound but, I think
If you listen to American Soul music in the late 60s you kind of got the politics by osmosis. I mean, if you listen to Motown Chartbusters Vol. 5 after “ABC” by the Jackson 5, Edwin Starr sings “War.”
[Edwin Starr — “War” plays]
And then, you’ve got the Supremes, and then you’ve got the Temptations singing “Ball of Confusion.” Something’s happened.
Something’s happened since Volume 4, which is almost all pop-y, and that is something and the clue is in there if you if you dig deeper because buried in the back of the writing order is Marvin Gaye singing “Abraham, Martin, and John.” What has happened is Martin Luther King has been assassinated, and the civil rights movement has turned dark and the possibility of a bright horizon in America has been nullified by the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King.
And you kind of pick that up listening to the music so…
I come of a generation where music was our only social medium. It’s the way we spoke to one another. It spoke to our parents, and it had to encompass everything: politics, love, football, the weather, haircuts, everything. And if you were 19 years old and angry about the world as I was the only way to have your voice heard was to learn to play guitar, write songs and do gigs. There was no other medium available to someone like me.
CL: I was going to say, does anything beat music?
BB: I don’t think so. I’ve never come across anything like it. You know, if you’re looking for release, if you’re looking for something to change your mood, if you’re looking for something that can have an effect on you without putting horrible chemicals in your body, I think music’s better than anything else.
CL: I think you’re right. From that growing up perspective late 60s, early 70s, how did the Beatles sound to a young kid who’s political mind is maturing like yours?
BB: Well, you know there’s a political element, and John Lennon’s political element kind of connected with it. You know I can remember hearing the White Album and thinking that you know they were trying to say something and do something here, and they were.
[The Beatles — “Revolution” plays]
And they were, you know, the Beatles of that generation that didn’t know you couldn’t change the world through music, you know Phil Ochs generation. You know Phil believed that the world could be changed because his world had been changed by Elvis Presley. He brought black and white youth together through rock n roll so maybe they could do that through politics. They didn’t know that musicians can’t change the world like we do now. So it cost Phil his life. It destroyed him in the end. So it’s best to you know understand how this works.
CL: Remind me, I think I saw Phil Ochs playing and singing in Chicago in 1968.
BB: He did.
CL: At the Democratic Convention–
BB: In the park, yeah.
CL: And then what happened?
BB: After that failed and after the assassination of particularly Bobby Kennedy I think, he kind of started to drift away and eventually hung himself at his sister’s house in Long Island in the early 70s I think because he took the struggle too personally. There’s a lesson for us all there.
CL: Spell it out.
BB: Woodie’s guitar didn’t kill fascists, in its simplest terms. You have to understand that. It’s an idea we put out. We’re not the solution. You know, we’re at best a signpost, at worst a mirror. Don’t expect the world to change just because you wrote a song about it, you know. Woodie’s guitar inspired people to join the anti-fascist cause and do that work, and that’s our role.
We set out to inspire people and make them feel like they’re not alone, give them the wherewithal to overcome their cynicism and act, but we’re not leaders. We’re not people with solutions. We’re just offering a different perspective.
CL: When did fascism come into view for you, and how did it enter your vocabulary and your thinking?
BB: During punk. I was a fan of a band called The Clash, and The Clash were one of the supporters of a group called Rock Against Racism. And they organized a huge carnival in 1978, a big march through the streets of London to a place called Victoria Park in Hackney where there was a big gig on, and that was my first ever political activism, first thing I ever did that was political. And the experience I had that day remains the basis of how I perceive pop is able to and rock is able to engage in the process of bringing about some form of change.
[The Clash — “I Fought the Law” plays]
CL: What was your image of fascism. I mean, you’re a post-war child. How did you see it? Where did you see it?
BB: Well I mean the obvious image of Fascism were the Nazis that bombed our house. You know, I mean my dad was out in the streets as a Boy Scout during the Blitz, you know, trying to put out fires with my granddad. As they were flying over they had a direct hit on our house, three houses from ours blew out all our windows out. So, there was them fascists. And then there were them fat sweaty blokes in the National Front who were marching through the streets in the late 1970s whose party, the National Front, came third in the all-London city elections in 1974, who you know were selling their youth newspaper just outside my school. Those people. And Rock Against Racism was a response to that.
And so I went along with my friends and got to the park in Hackney, and there was like 100,000 kids just like me there. And at the top of the bill there was a guy named Tom Robinson, and he had a song called “Sing if you’re glad to be gay.” He was a gay man, and when he sang this song, all the fellows around me and my mates just started kissing each other on the lips. Now, I was 19, 20. I’ve never met an out gay man. I mean, I grew up in a sort of industrial suburb of Eastern London. I’d never met an out gay man, and suddenly all these guys kissing each other. And my initial thought was, “why are these gay men if this event is about black people?” But it didn’t take long, five minutes, to realize that actually the fascists are against anybody who’s in any way different and that their fight, these gay men, their fight is the same as our fight against racism. It’s actually discrimination that we’re against.
you know, and that’s kind of my… That was a big penny drop for me. You know, I came away from that place with my view of the world changed, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been there in that place. You know, when I went back to work on Monday morning, I started speaking out when the men I work with were casually racist or sexist or homophobic.
And the crucial thing you have to understand though is that it wasn’t the Clash that gave me the courage of my convictions. It was being in that audience with those hundred thousand other kids just like me and realizing I was not alone in the way I felt, realizing that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds in the way the previous generation defined themselves in opposition to the Vietnam War, and a generation before that defined themselves in opposition to nuclear weapons.
And so, you know what changed me was the actual experience of that audience. The Clash did a great job. They got me there. That’s very important. Tom did a great job. He sang “Sing If You’re Glad to be Gay,” which allowed those gay men to openly express their identity, which had an effect on me. But it was those guys, really, it was those brave gay men and all the other kids in the audience that first made me feel that I wasn’t the only person who cared about this stuff. And I think that’s one of the key things that — perhaps the most that music — can do. It can make you feel that you’re not alone.
CL: What was the music of that moment? What’s the song that comes to mind?
BB: “Police and Thieves” by the Clash probably. That’s kind of like a mix up of Jamaican reggae and London punk, which probably sums up best what we were talking about that day.
[The Clash — “Police and Thieves” plays]
CL: How are you seeing the sort of reigning class public conversation in England those days, what was wrong with it? What was workable? But also how did you see the states?
BB: The ruling class were exemplified by Margaret Thatcher and her policies. She was clearly against the likes of me. I didn’t bother to vote.
CL: When did that dawn on you?
BB: After I failed to vote against her in 1979 election because I didn’t think politics had anything to do with me. So I didn’t bother. And then before next election we had the Falklands War. We had an American nuclear missile site in our country and we had the dismantling of the welfare state. So I realized that even if I wasn’t interested in politics, I was interested in me, so better get my ass in gear and do something about it. And you know, United States of America, I think you know I grew up with quite a benign sense of the United States of America and that changed when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.
CL: Spell it out.
BB: Well, you know, the Cold War was kind of going nowhere. Then Thatcher and Reagan come along and it’s in their interest to stir up the Cold War again because they have no ideology they just have nationalism. You know the Republican Party is basically the American Nationalist Party. Perhaps we’re seeing it even more nakedly now. You know America First, Make America Great Again. That’s not the traditional role of someone like FDR. You know, taking more responsibility and working with other nations around the world to bring about things. And if you think by walking away from your responsibilities nothing’s going to change the Chinese are already in there, filling in those gaps that you’re leaving. The world is changing and in some ways I think that’s maybe why Trump was elected because it’s kind of running away from you the same way it’s running away from us. I mean it’s the same impulse behind Brexit. The world is changing quickly and we’re no longer in charge.
CL: Billy Bragg, I’m listening for a history of British dissent from the Thatcher years to this moment when dissent is surging. What are the great landmarks there?
BB: There’s one great landmark really, there’s one great landmark after which everything changes, that’s the 1984 Coal Miners’ Strike. That changes everything.
CL: That’s mid Reagan in our country.
BB: Yeah. Changes everything. Thatcher’s second term, she takes on the National Union of Mineworkers. They had some history with the Conservative Party. In 1974, they went on strike and the conservative prime minister, then prime minister, Edward Heath, called an election on the question of who runs the country, and lost. They threw him out. The miners won. So, when Thatcher got into power, the Tories wanted to revisit that fight and destroy the power of the Union. So when the national union mineworkers went on strike, the Tories were already waiting for them. In fact, they provoked the strike because what they did first was they make sure that coal stocks were really high. They did it in the summer, in the spring rather, stockpiling coal by putting some new trade union laws and they did it in the spring. So it would be a long time before people were going to need power in the power stations.
And over the course of a year they bought the entire power of the state to bear on trade unionists and their supporters like me, to the extent where some areas of the country were like a police state. And that’s ultimately what politicized my generation to go from being personally political to being ideologically political, to be beyond, you know, just sort of talking about it to actually doing something about it.
CL: You’re a performer by now. What were you what were you singing?
BB: Well initially I was singing all punk songs. Then I went out and did some gigs in the coalfields and there were folksingers up there whose songs were more radical than mine, so I had to kind of revisit some older songs. So I kind of repurposed an Joe Hill song. I borrowed the title, which is called “There’s Power in a Union” And I took an old song from the American Civil War called “Rally around the Flag,” which of course is the “Union forever, hurrah boys hurrah.” And I sort of stuck them together and wrote some new lyrics and come up with my own Union anthem called “There is Power in a Union.” And I later found out that the tune for “Rally Around the Flag” had been stolen from an English hymn so, I thought “Ok, I don’t feel so bad about it now” …like so much in our exchanges.
CL: I’m sure you know the movie Pride about a kind of convergence of identity politics and economic politics and the miners strike.
BB: I do very well, very well indeed. The main character is a young gay man who organizes a miner support group. His name is Mark Ashton and he was a volunteer for Red Wage and he worked with me for Red Wage and certainly he was the first person I know to die of AIDS. He was 21. So that movie was quite a sort of trip down memory lane for me. There were amazing times and I’m really glad that someone took the trouble to memorialize that group. They were only small group but the area they were working in challenging working class perceptions of sexuality, of gender, of race as well. Those miners were hardcore, some of them to start with, but by the end of it you know I think we helped change their views somewhat. That’s what solidarity will do for you.
Coming up: The new music in England that anticipated an “efflorescence of resistance,” underground, on the way to Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. This is Open Source.
Billy Bragg draws an interesting broad line in the late 1970s — a cultural and political border crossing into the Margaret Thatcher years in England, the Reagan years in the US. David Graeber, the American anthropologist and historian who’s lived a long time in England made a similar observation to us last month: that the songs of the British invasion — Beatles and Rolling Stones — had been written by and for children of the welfare state: “rock-and-roll” was in fact Cockney slang for the dole. After 1979 Mrs. Thatcher adopted and enforced austerity by choice. The unspoken slogan to the Sex Pistols generation sounded like “no future here.” And Punk became the sound of resistance:
BB: Yeah I mean “no future” was a lyric from a Sex Pistols song.
CL: My man Johnny Rotten …. Johnny Rotten Lydon, remember.
BB: Yeah, indeed. So it’s kind of, it’s very much part of that whole nihilistic punk thing but there was other strains in punk as well that were trying to be a bit more progressive. Joe Strummer came out the sort of squatting politics … that was a little bit more organized, a bit more anarchistic — properly anarchistic, not just the word in the way that the Pistols used it. But yeah punk was very much what I identified with. It was a rejection of everything that went before. But I still had this trouble about walking it like you talk it. I had to find some way of making music that actually was connected to reality and not just talking about stuff but actually at what point does it connect with action. And that’s how we came to Red Wedge.
CL: Talk about it — the sound of it and the spirit of it.
BB: Well, really it’s just pop stars for socialism, that would be the best way to explain it, I suppose. Yeah. You know, with the great pop stars of the day — Sade, one of our great soul chanteuses, Paul Weller from Soul Council
And we put on gigs at which Labour Party members of Parliament will be in the foyer if you want to talk to them. We didn’t have them on stage making speeches. And during the daytime in that city, we would have a day event where young people would meet us and with the MPs and thrash a few things out.
CL: Of course, Thatcher and Reagan were the first twin regime in a sense — Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were another sort of Ping-Ponging ideologies back and forth across the Atlantic. But what were you doing in the Tony Blair time? What were you thinking?
BB: Well I mean I still kind of doing what I was doing but I wasn’t very fashionable. In fact I’ve never really been in fashion, which is kind of … fine. I’m not really interested in that. I would rather be relevant than fashionable.So yeah I was just kind of writing songs, having kids, getting on with being a musician you know. It’s just been a long strange trip until Jeremy Corbyn got elected leader of the Labour Party and we’re all of a sudden back to the politics of my youth.
CL: This was the period when you rediscovered Woody Guthrie?
BB: But yeah, making Mermaid Avenue is a great honor for me. You know I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot from it.
CL: And what was Woody Guthrie’s ghost saying to you?
BB: Woody Guthrie’s ghost was saying to me: Why don’t you write some new tunes for [51:59] for all these lyrics I wrote all that time ago. I mean, Guthrie wrote over 3,000 songs for which he only recorded 10 percent and out of that all those songs he didn’t write musical notation. His daughter Nora these songs were languishing in boxes at the family home and she was looking for someone to come in and write some new music [52:43] and she employed me to do. And I invite Wilco to join me and we had a lot of fun. We were supposed to make a 15 track record and we ended up recording over 50 songs. It was brilliant. It was like going to the dressing up box every day.
Who do you want to be? And it wasn’t all political either you know. You know he wrote a great song about wanting to make love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of an Italian volcano — in which the volcano is a metaphor for his tumescent manhood.
So in comparison to what I was doing in the 1980s, the 1990s were more of a … having a career in music and trying to think of interesting ways to address issues. And trying to pick issues that weren’t easily digestible by the left, one of which was Englishness. So, I made an album called England Half-English which I tried to sort of talk a bit about English identity which is not a popular subject on the left in the UK.
But I felt that the failure to talk about it, to express a left wing a sense of belonging, gave a free pass to the to the neo-fascists and the British National Party who were winning council seats at the time. So what we really need to talk about is still not politically popular but…
CL: In your book, you quote that marvelous Orwell line, I think it was from 1940, but: “British society is a family run by the wrong members.”
BB: “The wrong members in charge”, yeah.
CL: Spell that out.
BB: It’s from The Lion and the Unicorn perhaps the greatest book ever written about Englishness and socialism. It’s actually called The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. He means by genius he means that sort of sense of a genius loci, you know, it’s almost belonging he’s talking about rather than anything else. And you know Orwell still has a lot to tell us. He’s kind of our Woody Guthrie in many ways, because you can interpret what he says in a number of different ways, you know. 1984 — go back and read it again: it’s all about Donald Trump, it’s all about Donald Trump. It’s just… I took part in a reading of 1984, a live reading to mark the centenary of something or other being… the bits I was reading it was so resonant of what’s going on with Trump. At one point when O’Brian is interrogating poor old Winston, he says: “You know in the past people base their politics on the common good — making life better — ours will be based on hatred and fear and driving people apart and self-aggrandizement. Everything else we will destroy. Everything.” I mean I read that and a chill went through me, I’ll be perfectly honest with you, a chill went through me and I thought of the Orange-Haired Monster… go back and read 1984. Every time — I read it every 10 years, it has a different meaning every 10 years.
CL: Bring us through Brexit but also to this new government, if it really is one, of Theresa May and the Corbyn shock, the Corbyn surprise. David Graeber, again, spoke of an efflorescence of resistance building up in England, maybe a year, 18 months. Have you seen it?
BB: I have, I’ve seen it firsthand. Brexit, the vote of Brexit, went down over Glastonbury weekend last year — biggest rock festival in Europe, possibly the world — where I run a stage called Left Field. We put on debates and left-wing artists and it went down on a Thursday night, so on Friday morning it was a lot of upset people around a lot of upset people. And I went to get my coffee and there were two guys behind me in the queue who recognise me I guess — they might have been in their late 20s. And I they were like, “Bill, Brexit what you gonna do man? What are you going to do?”
I turn around. They were bigger than me. And I said, “What am I gonna do? What am I going to do, mate? It’s not my future that’s just gone down the toilet, is it? I’ve been to all those places. I’ve worked in those places around the world. What are you going to do, Sunshine, to sort this out? You know because this is your future they’re talking about. You’re not gonna be able to work in Europe, you’re going to live in a country that’s cut itself off from the world. What are you going to do?”
And they answered that on June the 8th — this year during the general election. They were woke. Brexit woke them up just like Margaret Thatcher’s getting elected woke me up. Brexit woke them up. It was the young people who went out and voted in sufficient numbers to derail Brexit, which is where we kind of are now — it’s a kind of zombie Brexit that we have at the moment. And at this year’s Glastonbury festival at all kind of times of the day when you were wandering around in the middle of the night when you’re lying in your bunk and you could hear groups of young people chanting the name of Jeremy Corbyn to the tune of Seven Nation Army.
CL: How does it sound?
BB: Oooh-Jer-e-my Cor-byn. Oooh-Jer-e-my Cor-byn.
[Stormzy — “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” plays]
I mean, they it did on the Saturday night the BBC broadcast Radiohead set live on national TV on Saturday night prime time. And being Radiohead they spent a lot of time fossicking about in the dark, being art students. [59:28] and in these gaps, the audience — 70,000 people — were chanting Jeremy Corbyn’s name live on TV for 90 seconds. I mean the Tories must be pulling their hair out. I’m more hopeful now than I’ve been at any time since…
CL: Hopeful of what, Billy?
BB: That the young people are going to step up take responsibility and they’re going to vote in sufficient numbers and remain engaged in the mainstream so that the parties have to take notice of them. Because at the moment the division that we have is one of age. Anyone over 55 was predominantly voted to leave. Anyone under 55 predominantly vote to remain. Anyone over 55 votes Tory. Anyone under 55 votes Labour or Liberal Democrat or Green. So there’s this division at the moment and we’ve got to reconcile that in some way. So if they remain engaged now they’ve got the sort of scent of blood in their nostrils, I’m kind of hoping they’ll keep going.
And this is the interesting thing about Corbyn: you know, when I was doing my set on Friday night you know at left field there was a guy who kept starting the chant, the Corbyn chant, which is fine, I don’t mind it, but I decided to say to him at one point, “Mate, you’ve got to understand something. It’s not him, it’s us. We did this, he didn’t do that. He’s got no more idea why this happened than anybody else.” You got to understand really since the crash in 2008 all of the opportunities where people got to vote in my country have been votes against the center, against Westminster.. Then we had the Scottish referendum that nearly went pear shaped. It only just won that back. And then you had the Brexit vote that goes against the center. Then you had the recent elections — the election of Jeremy Corbyn as well was a vote against the center by members of the Labor Party against the mainstream political view.
And I think Trump was it as well. Trump was that. I mean the thing that worried me most about Hillary was that she wasn’t the change candidate. People want change. People are sick of the way the economy’s being run and they want someone to change it. And if no one comes along to change it they’ll vote for a guy who’s just going to smash it up — and that’s where we are at the moment. You know, the bull in a china shop in my country is Brexit. Smash it all up. If you aren’t going to change it, let’s destroy it. And that impulse is out there, that impulse is out there. It’s is still abroad in this country because you know Trump’s base has not deserted him yet. So you have — what do you do then? You just carry on and let it go as it’s going or you put together a different way that you could run the economy and offer that to people. No one’s done that yet. Corbyn started to do that in the U.K. started to try and pull that together. But even he… my one criticism of him is: he’s a person of the 20th century. He’s not a person of the 21st century. He doesn’t understand.
CL: What does that mean?
BB: It means his politics are broadly statist. He’s not understanding that the power needs to be spread to everybody, that everybody’s vote needs to count. We need an electoral system that’s proportional and not just delivers winners. He’s not really grasped that. If he was really radical, he’d be talking about changing the voting system and abolishing the House of Lords and making sure that everybody has a say in society. You can’t have an economy that works for everybody if you don’t have a democracy that works for everybody.
CL: Who’s writing the song — who’s making the music at this moment?
BB: In my country the best political music has been made by the urban community. Young black man are making a musical called grime which is a mixture of high-speed hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall. And they are still using music in the way that the rest of us used music in the 20th century; they use it to talk to one another and to their detractors, you know.
[Skepta — “Konnichiwa” plays]
The reason they use music is to express their views is because it’s the only chance they have to get into your timeline and my timeline. Because nobody else is going down there to listen to them.
And it was I think significant the during the election they were the only community that stood with Jeremy Corbyn. There was actually a grime for — the number four — Corbyn movement of grime artists coming out and saying we’ve got to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. You don’t get your Ed Sheeran’s in that lot, stepping out. I mean old fogies like me we were there, of course. But the fact that it was grime artists is very, very significant.
V/O: Jeremy Corbyn took lots of time with Grime artists before the voting in June. Here he was chatting with the DJ JME at a cafe in London:
JC: Voter registration dropped off over many years, particularly amongst young people. In the last year, less than half of under 25s voted who were eligible to vote. I want it to be much much higher.
DJ Jme: I think one thing that I want to make sure I do say is that I’ve never voted before, ever, ever. I’ve grown up, like, making the best out of what I’ve got and being optimistic about what I’ve got. Now if somebody was to ask me, “why don’t young people vote?” I would say it’s because they actually think that it won’t make a difference.
JC: And they don’t see any resonance in what they think and do in a political system that’s out of touch with them.
DJ: With them, yeah. If I can do something really small that has a big change, I’ll do it. The main thing is to make sure people remember to register to vote. That’s the most important thing.
JC: We’ll both do it together. I’m Jeremy
DJ: I’m Jeremy
Together: Make sure to register to vote!
BB: everyone goes: “ Oh there’s no political music anymore.” You know it’s because you’re looking for white boys guitars again. There’s no new Bob Dylan, there’s no new Beatles, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t great political music out there. So don’t tell me nobody is writing political music anymore.
CL: In England and in this country it strikes me that the most interesting thing is that the official scorekeepers — the BBC, shall we say, or The New York Times — still don’t get it. And we’re trying to talk across a gap of standardized centrist conversation that seems more and more irrelevant — but they’re still there.
BB: Yeah, well, the trouble with The New York Times and the BBC people like that is they’re working in a reality based format. We’re past that now, we’re at the other side of that.
CL: Where are we?
BB: We’re in a place where a racist bigot can be elected president United States of America. The worst of all candidates can rise to the top, voted in. By people who see themselves reflected in him because he’s a man who doesn’t give a shit about anybody else — and nor do they. And the sooner we find those people and the sooner we confront them with what they’ve done the better we can get through all this and get back to building that shining city on a hill because at the moment you building nothing but an outside toilet on a hill, you know, and that needs to change. In my country, it’s Brexit, it’s doing the same thing. We’ve got not just derail but we got to put together a better society, rather than one that just acquiesces to the European Union, that reforms the European Union to make it a union for people not for profit.
There’s a lot of work to be done. It’s not going to be done by going back to the language of Marx. The language of Marx is dead, you know. But instead the issues that he talked about haven’t been resolved so we’ve got to find a language in which to resolve those problems and communicate that to each other and the hyper-individualism that we see now with the Internet has to be challenged and the hyper-cynicism that comes with it also has to be challenged. It’s a big fight. It’s a big fight but there are enough people out there willing to stand up as far as I can see, everyone from my indigenous friend at the weekend in London to the grimes guys to you know Woody’s old friends who you see them around. People like yourself. There are enough of us out there we just need to find a way of focusing that. But you know expecting it to be Hillary you’re wasting your time. We’re past that, we’re so far past that. It’s change people want. They want change. And if they can’t get change they’ll take chaos.
CL: What’s our song going out?
BB: “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward”
CL: [laughing] Have you written it?
BB: I surely did.
Billy Bragg’s book is “Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World.” There are playlists and more on our youtube channel and on our website: radioopensource.org.
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Our show this week was produced by Conor Gillies, Zach Goldhammer, Frank Horton, Becca DeGregorio and Kevin Doherty. Rockers all. Susan Coyne does our incredible illustrations. Vintage rocker George Hicks mixed the program. Mary McGrath is our child of The Clash. In the extended Johnny Rotten family, I’m Christopher Lydon. Join us next time for Open Source.