“Speaking Freely” show recorded Nov. 13, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.
Billy Bragg: [Plays and sings] “I grew up in a company town, / and I worked real hard till that company closed down. / They gave my job to another man / on half my wages in some foreign land. / And when I asked how could that be / any good for our economy, / I was told nobody cares / so long as they make money when they sell their shares. / Can you hear us? / Are you listening? / No power without accountability, yeah. / I lost my job, my car, and my house / when 10,000 miles away some guy clicked on a mouse. / He didn’t know me. / We never spoke. / He didn’t ask my opinion or canvass for my vote. / I guess it’s true. / Nobody cares / till those petrol bombs come spinning through the air. / Gotta find a way to hold them to account / before they find a way to snuff our voices out. / Can you hear us? / Are you listening? / No power without accountability. / You listening? / No power without accountability, yeah. / The world bank says to Mexico, / “We’ll cut you off if you don’t keep your taxes low.” / But they have no right to wield that sword. / They take their orders from the chairman of the board. / IMF, WTO, / I hear these words just every place I go. / Who are these people? / Who elected them? / And how do I replace them with some of my friends? / Can you hear us? / Are you listening? / No power without accountability. / Are you listening? / No power without accountability. / Are you listening? / No power without accountability.”
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is Billy Bragg, respected worldwide as a man whose music says much more than most. And his work also helped introduce Woody Guthrie to a new generation. No power without responsibility. Welcome to the show.
Bragg: Yeah, it’s an important word, man.
Paulson: They’re both important words, aren’t they?
Bragg: They’re both very important words, yeah.
Paulson: I asked you beforehand, “Could you please do something that American audiences have been responding positively to?” and you—and that came right to mind?
Bragg: Yeah, it did. I mean, I think accountability is a big word, and it’s a very, very important word at a time when democracy, perhaps, has been a little bit devalued as an idea by the result of your last election. Um — the United States of America is talking about, you know, exporting democracy around the world. You know, I’m going to, to the Free Trade — the Americas summit soon. I’m hoping that, perhaps, Lula, the president of Brazil, might stand up and suggest exporting democracy to the United States of America. Seems like a good idea.
Paulson: As should be evident to every viewer by this point, you are British-born.
Paulson: And you’re a man who cares passionately about the condition of the world. You have spoken out and sung out about injustice and what you believe needs to be fixed across — literally across the globe.
Paulson: It is kind of a special treat, actually, to have you play an acoustic guitar. That’s somewhat unusual. You —
Bragg: It is, yeah.
Paulson: — usually play electric guitar.
Bragg: Yeah, I’m a product of the punk phenomenon, really.
Bragg: I’m inspired by The Clash and — but also by the work of people like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.
Paulson: And I’ve read a quote from you where you said, “Typically, somebody goes out to a coffee house with an acoustic guitar around their neck; they think,
Paulson: — ‘I’m Bob Dylan. I’m James Taylor.’” And you think you’re The Clash.
Bragg: I like to think I’m The Clash, yeah; I mean — and it’s — ironically, of course, The Clash famously, you know, painted slogans on their guitars, which they, you know, which was a lick that they nicked directly from Woody Guthrie, who famously had “This machine kills fascists” on his guitar. So, it’s part of the same tradition. It’s just another way of approaching it.
Paulson: And so what ignited this? I mean, clearly you’ve got talent. You’re a singer and songwriter, but there is a political streak running throughout your work.
Bragg: Yeah, um — I think it was ignited — my politics were probably ignited by listening to — to the music of the civil rights era. But not exactly what you think of, of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan; more kind of like “Abraham, Martin and John” by Marvin Gaye, songs like that, songs from — songs which — I was very much, as a kid, into black music, the music of black America. Also, reggae music was very influential when I was at school, when I was 12, 13, 14, you know? And I—and the first music I ever owned was a Motown Chartbusters album, Volume Four — Three and Four, I think. And, you know, in between “Stoned Love” and, and, uh, you know, “Still Waters Run Deep” by the Four Tops is “Abraham, Martin and John,” which is a simplistic message, very straightforward message. When you’re 12, 13 years old, it really, really resonates. So, that’s kind of, that’s kind of where I came in to — to music that has some, some message. But the real inspiration, really, for me as a political artist, was someone whose name I’ll never forget. It was Margaret Thatcher, her arrival in 1979 and her attempts to roll back the, the welfare programs that we have in the United Kingdom was a direct threat to — to me and my family and our communities. And that, coupled with the miners’ strike in 1984, was what politicized me.
Paulson: I was going to say, “People first heard about you in terms of the miners’ strike.” You went up against the Margaret Thatchers of the world, and you took the stand about the miners, and you lost.
Bragg: Yeah, well, it’s true. We did lose with regard to the miners. But the connections to our major in that period still inform me.
Paulson: I was going to say, “Wasn’t that discouraging?” I mean, it’s like tilting at windmills, and the windmill falls over on you.
Bragg: Yeah, well, you know, the thing is, in 1974, the miners won. That was why Margaret Thatcher was very angry. And she spent a year and used the whole weight of the state on the National Union of Mine Workers, and she crushed them. It wasn’t really a fair fight, but the community spirit that we got from that, the values that we got, inform us still. And, you know, there were other fights as well going on at the time. Artists Against Apartheid was an important one. And, you know, that went the other way. I feel for — every time, you know, I feel very proud when I hear “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika,” the South African national anthem, which is the old apartheid anthem, you know? Some you win; some you lose. That’s the way it is in politics.
Paulson: What I’m intrigued by is that you were a voice of — for social justice in Great Britain. And yet you said there are a lot of things to be corrected worldwide. And you’ve literally circled the globe and — and sung about injustice. And that’s a very large windmill.
Bragg: Mmm, it is. Well, you have to understand in a country the size of the United Kingdom that those windmills do have an effect on our country. Most obviously recently with the war in Iraq, we, for better or for worse, have troops that are alongside your troops in Iraq. So, you can see the effect of events in the United States of America have on us. So, the opportunity to come here and speak to people, either through your program or at gigs, it’s really — I find it really refreshing to come on a program like this, uh—to, to know that my ideas are going to be broadcast. Because, unfortunately, um, the mainstream media has a bit of a firewall between the people of Europe and the people of the United States of America. We don’t often get to hear voices. We don’t often get to hear alternative voices other than, than the agenda of the — sort of mainstream corporate America.
Paulson: Let’s talk—
Bragg: And that concerns me.
Paulson: Let’s talk about that. It’s not just corporate America. You’ve been involved in express concern about the lack of diversity in, in the United Kingdom—
Paulson: — as well in terms of radio. And, of course, in this country, there’s great concern about consolidation of ownership.
Paulson: What do you see happening?
Bragg: What I see happening is a narrowing of the argument. And that leads to a — it makes it more difficult for the mainstream media to articulate what,um, are often rather ambiguous feelings that people have regarding a situation. Take, for instance, Iraq. You know, the poll numbers are strange, but they don’t really tell us how people are feeling about it. Um, I think one of the strange anomalies of this is that — the statistic that the majority of people believe there’s a connection between Saddam Hussein and the events of September 11, 2001. Now, the reason why there’s no German and French and Canadian troops in Iraq is because the people of Europe and the people of Canada don’t actually accept that premise. Our opposition is not based on anti-Americanism. It’s based on the fact that we’ve had a very broad discussion in our media, in our mainstream media over this. You know, we’re not a bunch of peaceniks. There was broad—although we weren’t too happy about it—there was a broad acceptance of the link between Afghanistan and 9-11. Uh, but I’m afraid that the largest demonstration ever in my country’s history—bigger than anything we did with the miners, anything, uh, against Margaret Thatcher—was over this present situation regarding Iraq, because people — not only did they not buy it, but they felt that their — that sensibility was reflected in the media. They weren’t the only people who felt that. And I think in the U.S. what has happened is, those voices have been pushed to the margins. And if you, if you only watch the mainstream media, which so many people have little time to follow the media do, then you do get a completely different version of accounts. And to me, the most important thing we could have in order to bring to justice the perpetrators of September 11th — and believe me, I want, as much as George W. Bush, that to never happen again, not to anybody: America, Britain, Palestine, Israel, anywhere around the world. The, the best weapons we could be armed with are facts. And I’m afraid facts have become dreadfully obscured in the days afterwards. And part, and part of that reason is that this whole Iraq agenda has been sort of forced onto this issue. And we’ve kind of seemed to have lost our way in resolving, uh, or finding and bringing to justice the people who committed that awful, awful crime on September 11th.
Paulson: The brand-new CD, The Essential Billy Bragg —
Paulson: — which is essential.
Bragg: Thank you.
Paulson: It’s wonderful material that spans your entire career, beginning with “A New England” and continuing on through to “Take Down the Union Jack,” your song, your ode of joy
Paulson: — to the celebration.
Bragg: Yeah, actually, it’s an ode of joy to being English rather than being British, which, I know, is a subtle difference to outsiders. It’s kind of like the Scots and the Welsh in the last few years have got their own parliaments, and we English are a bit sort of like — and they keep sort of giving us this British thing. Britain haven’t even got a soccer team. What kind of country is that?
Bragg: Exactly. You see? Exactly. So, it’s really — it’s not — and it looks kind of like, again, an anti-patriotic song, but it’s not; it’s a different — asking for a different form of patriotism.
Paulson: If somebody had written a song in this country that says, “Take down the American flag,” they’re all over talk radio.
Bragg: Exactly, yeah.
Paulson: Did you face that?
Bragg: No, no. The funny thing is, we put that, put that out as a single in the actual week of the Queen’s 50th anniversary jubilee, because you can’t make political music without context. Context is everything. And obviously, that was a time when there was a lot of flag waving. But, um, I don’t think we feel the same way. The flag isn’t at the center of our culture in the way that the flag represents for you. In fact, perhaps, it’s the Queen, actually. If I’d have said, you know, “Blow up the Queen,” which I wouldn’t say, that would have definitely got me all over talk radio. But “Take Down the Union Jack,” because people can see there’s a nuance there between the — the union jack and what we call the flag of St. George, which is the English flag. It wasn’t such a big deal. Maybe if I had done it in Nashville with a cowboy hat and done — gone for the Toby Keith line, I might have, I might have to — done it the right way then.
Paulson: Even the Sex Pistols said, “God save the Queen.”
Bragg: Yeah, that’s right. I think they were being ironic, though, Ken.
Paulson: I thought so. I gathered that. The Sex Pistols were an influence on you as well?
Bragg: More — the Sex Pistols were as a — kind of like a cultural element, but The Clash more, because, you know, the Pistols were — they weren’t really political. The thing about The Clash was, they brought together those two strands I talked about: political music and black music together. They mixed punk and reggae, and they, they really, um, helped me as a 19-year-old to make sense of the country I was living in. And Joe Strummer, who is sadly no longer with us, he was, he was the guy who came into The Clash and brought that. And I, you know, I do this job because I went once to a concert to see The Clash. And it was the first political thing I ever did. It was Rock Against Racism. And at this Rock Against Racism show, we were all grooving. It was a great show. There must have been about 50,000 people in this park. There’s another band — Tom Robinson Band came on. And their signature song was a song called “Sing If You’re Glad to be Gay.”
Bragg: And when Tom sang that, all these guys around me and my mates began to kiss one another on the lips. Now, I was only 19, and I had come from a working-class borough. I’d never met an openly gay man. This is a bit of a shock to the old system. And I thought, you know, “What are these gays doing at this? Anti-racism’s about black people.” And then it, you know, “bing,” light comes on in my mind. Actually, the racists, the fascists, they’re afraid of anybody who is in any way different. And from that day on, I promised myself that I would be different, and I would challenge these people whenever I could. And that’s really why I do this job, you know? The Clash and their music didn’t change the world. But by bringing me to that event, they changed my perspective of the world. And I think that’s probably the most you can do is, you can change people’s perspective on the world with music. And that, and that experience has kind of led me on to do, to do what I do today.
Paulson: You mentioned Tom Robinson. Certainly, “Glad to be Gay” was an anthem unlike any other.
Paulson: It was, and it heartened a lot of people. So did one of your songs called “Sexuality.” You never, to the best of my knowledge, strived for a hit record, but you got one with “Sexuality.”
Bragg: I did. I had a big pop hit.
Paulson: And a dance mix, I guess?
Bragg: Yeah, a dance mix, that whole — video, everything.
Paulson: And there’s a single line in there that basically says, “I won’t turn you away because you’re gay.”
Bragg: “Just because you’re gay, I won’t turn you away.” Yeah, it’s talking about, you know, it was really written at a time when the whole HIV, um, issue had come to the fore, and suddenly the people from the gay and lesbian community were being stigmatized from this. And, you know, my job is, like, to say where the bushfire is. It’s not a case of me just writing about whatever I want to write about. My job is to see where things are and try and add something to the conversation. And that’s what I tried to do with “Sexuality.”
Paulson: And the beauty of that song is, it wasn’t calculated to appeal to the gay community, but you were being inclusive.
Paulson: It was just one more line?
Bragg: No, I’ve always felt very strongly that it’s not just up to gay people to talk about that. It’s not just up to women to write songs about male violence towards women. It’s up to us blokes as well to say, “Hang on a minute, you know, this is — you know, we’ve got to stand up to these people.” I think that’s really important.
Paulson: We can’t have the dance mix here.
Bragg: You can’t. No, it’d have to be a slightly unplugged version.
Paulson: We’ll take that, please.
Bragg: Thanks. [Plays and sings] “I’ve had relations / with girls from many nations. / I’ve made passes / at women of all classes. And just because you’re gay, / I won’t turn you away. / If you stick around, / I’m sure that we can find some common ground. / Sexuality, young and warm and wild and free. / Sexuality, your laws do not apply to me. / A nuclear submarine sinks off the coast of Sweden. / Headlines give me headaches when I read ‘em. / I had an uncle who once played / for Red Star Belgrade. / He said, ‘Some things are really best left unspoken.’ / I prefer it all to be out in the open. / Sexuality, young and warm and wild and free. / Sexuality, your laws do not apply to me. / Sexuality, don’t threaten me with bigotry. / Sexuality, I demand your honesty. / I’m sure that everybody knows how much my body hates me. / It lets me down most every time and makes me rash and hasty. / I feel a total jerk before your naked body of work. / I’m getting weighed down with all this information. / Safe sex doesn’t mean no sex. / It just means use your imagination. / Stop playing with yourselves /in single currency hotels. / I look like Robert De Niro. / I drive a Mitsubishi Zero, yeah. / Sexuality, young and warm and wild and free. / Sexuality, your lies do not apply to me. / Sexuality, come eat and drink and sleep with me. / Sexuality, we can be what we want to be, / unless, of course, it’s an Episcopalian bishop.”
Paulson: Well, we’ve heard your take on the news media. I’m curious about the entertainment media, in particular the recording industry.
Paulson: You took a stand early in your career. You demanded that your first CD be sold at a specified maximum price, which didn’t go over real well.
Paulson: And, you know, now we’re 25 years down the road, and you’ve got debates over downloading and should, should it be prosecuted.
Paulson: What is the state of the music industry today?
Bragg: Well, I think, you know, we’re moving to a situation where very soon it’s going to be like one big record company and one big radio station, unfortunately. That’s the way things are going. And, you know, I went to a country like that once. It was called the Soviet Union. I’m not in favor of that. I’m not in favor of any kind of monopolies, not a monopoly of power, not a monopoly of commerce. And, you know, if you want the, the next Beatles to come through, to break out locally from England and to be able to be heard in the U.S.—or any local band anywhere in the United States of America—you need — localism is crucial. Um, and we need, we need record companies and radio stations run by music fans who — who are in that town rather than broadcasting from, you know, Honolulu. Uh, and that’s the — you know, because what happens is, you just, you just end up with a very narrow definition of pop culture. And I don’t, and I don’t think that serves the listener.
Paulson: I suppose one saving grace has been the Internet, which you’ve used—
Paulson: — to distribute your music and—
Paulson: — your message.
Paulson: There are a lot of voices out there, and they’re not all being heard in the way that a network is. But there’s, I guess, a lot of free speech out there.
Bragg: There is. I mean, you know, I recorded a song called “The Price of Oil,” which I recorded in an evening at my bass player’s house. Didn’t cost me anything. I put it on the Internet. It was downloaded 60,000, 70,000 times. I would never have reached people if I’ve had made — pressed that, put it on a record, and sent it to radio. They wouldn’t have played it. So, the Internet does offer us opportunities. Um, it’s, you know, there are — obviously, there are problems there. And if anybody, um, is going to make money out of downloading, I think it should be artists first. Artists should be at the front of that queue, and everybody else can — you know, it should be in our hands. But it is a very interesting way to reach people, because, you know, previously my audience were those people out there in the dark who just saw me in that way. Now, I, I interact with them directly through the Internet. And that’s much more interesting for me. I hope it’s more interesting for them.
Paulson: One of the, uh, things Americans know you best for is your partnership with Wilco
Paulson: — and the Mermaid Avenue CDs and this extraordinary — it’s a gift from, from Nora Guthrie. It’s a gift you earned. But to have Woody Guthrie’s family decide that you’re the man who should set music to Woody Guthrie’s long-lost manuscripts, that had to be an extraordinary moment for you.
Bragg: It was a deep-breath moment, you know?
Bragg: The first feeling is, “Surely this is Bob Dylan’s job, not mine, surely, you know? I’m not even an American.”
Paulson: Did he apply?
Bragg: I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, I think in some ways it wasn’t a job for someone who’s a real out-and-out Woody fan. You needed to be a bit distanced from Woody, because what Nora Guthrie wanted us to do was to look at lyrics that Woody had wrote—written, rather—mostly in the latter part of his life, after he’d come to New York City. Um, and these manuscripts, which are complete songs, often had music with them. But Woody kept the music in his head. So, when he died, the music was lost. Um, that voice, the voice that says not, “This land is your land,” but, you know, “I’d really like to make love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of an Italian volcano” is a different Woody Guthrie. So, I—I — Nora’s instruction to me was to ignore the legend and tune into the voice of the man in the archive, because no one’s heard that. “You can do what you like with that.” And that was really a great privilege, but also great fun, because me and Wilco were making the records. It was like going to the dressing-up box every day. “Who should we be today?” We could be Bob Dylan and the band. We could be Tom Waits, you know?
Paulson: And why did you choose Wilco?
Bragg: I’d seen Wilco. I’ve worked with Jeff Tweedy, the lead, the lead guy in Wilco, and I knew he was a huge music fan. And they just made an album called Being There, which was not only a great record, but they played in a lot of different styles, and it was just what I needed. So, I got in touch with Jeff. And I felt if I could explain this to him—and it takes a bit of explaining, but if I explained it to him—he’ll see what a unique opportunity this is to — to collaborate with the man who inspired Dylan and a whole slew of singer-songwriters. And Jeff got it straightaway.
Paulson: We’ve got just a couple minutes left.
Paulson: I wonder if we could possibly hear one of those songs.
Bragg: One of the great things about Woody is that, although you think of him as a figure in the ’30s, he’s an incredibly modern songwriter. This is a song he wrote in the ’40s, uh, that concerns the role of women in society. Now, you’ve got to think of Woody not just as a — the great Dust Bowl balladeer, but also as the first alternative singer-songwriter. It’s called “She Came Along to Me.” [Plays and sings] “Ten hundred books could I write you about her, / ’cause I’ve felt if I could know her I would know all women. / And they’ve not been any too well known / for brains and planning and organized thinking, / but I’m sure that women are equal, / and they may be ahead of the men. / Yeah, you better believe it. / Yet I wouldn’t spread such a rumor around, / ’cause one organizes the other. / And sometimes the most lost and wasted / attracts the most balanced and sane. / And the wild and the reckless / take up with the clocked and the timed, / and the mixture is all of us, / and we’re still mixing, yeah. / But never, never, never, never could have it been done if / the women hadn’t entered into the deal / like she came along to me. / All creeds and kinds and colors of us / are blending till I suppose / ten million years from now we’ll all be just alike, / same color, same kind and working together. / And maybe we’ll have all of the fascists / out of the way by then. / Maybe so. / But never, never, never, never could have it been done if / the women hadn’t entered into the deal / like she came along to me. / Never, never, never, never could have it been done / if the women hadn’t entered into the deal / like she came along to me. “
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