Billy Bragg's first outings in the early '80s earned him the tag "a one-man Clash." It was always an unsatisfactory description, for his music only sporadically hits you in the gut the way the Clash's radicalism can. When it does, it's in the charming vulnerability of a love song, or the heartbreaking image of a woman barely surviving while "Levi Stubbs' tears run down her face."
Bragg's songs appeal to conscience: At his best, he pushes beyond confirming what you already believe, to confronting you with the most uncompromising, even seditious, aspects of working-class politics. When he first began touring in the U.S., he was no longer compared to the Clash but rather to Woody Guthrie: a guy, a guitar and biting, vernacular songs of unions and socialism. Is he preachy? Sure, but so was Guthrie. Like Guthrie, Bragg's sermons in songs come to matter for the wit and realism in his voice and language.
In 1997, Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora contacted Bragg to work on a recording of lyrics her father had penned but never completed and which now reside in the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York. Bragg enlisted Wilco for the recording of Mermaid Avenue, an eclectic, bawdy and delicate revision of the Guthrie myth and an album Rolling Stone has called one of the most influential in the '90s. Although Mermaid Avenue is more than a year old, Bragg and his band the Blokes (featuring great Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan and 3 Mustaphas 3 alums Ben Mandelson and Lu Edmonds) continue to explore and transform Guthrie's legacy onstage. Bragg talked with the RFT about Mermaid Avenue and his uncompromising music in a compromised time.
RFT: Do you remember an early-'90s show you did with Uncle Tupelo at Washington University?
Bragg: That's where I first met Jeff Tweedy. I got a very strong vibe from him. When it came to do Mermaid Avenue, he was someone on my hit list to ask. I wanted to find people who would be enthusiastic about this project, and he got it straight away. He had the same reaction as me, of being taken aback by the power of the writing and vision, and the voice which was so strong in those words.
Tell me about the next installment of Mermaid Avenue. Will there be new collaborations with Wilco for the album?
We recorded 40 tracks for the first album, and so there's another 25 tracks already in the can. Some of them have been on the B-side of singles, but the bulk of them are waiting for the next record. There's so much good stuff that we haven't put out, it'd be a shame to go back and get more songs out of the archive. It's already made, and there it is. But I still have loads of songs I took from the archive that I haven't written music for, and I know Jeff does as well. It may be something we can come back to every few years and have another crack at it. I'd like to think other people will go into the archive and bring out what they find in Woody Guthrie. There's, like, 2,500 songs. There are so many Woody Guthries in there. You can fashion your own Woody Guthrie depending on what you tune into.
Did you have a strategy for weeding through all that material in the archive?
You've been in a bookshop, right? How many books are in Barnes & Noble? Thousands, but you still find something you like. You look at the spines, and something draws you in. It's a similar process. You look at the lyrics, and something draws you in. It's no more mystical or magical than that. That sounds perfunctory, but I don't mean it to. There is a sense, when you play those songs for the first time, that you're the first person who hears this being sung in 50 years. It's not quite archaeology but of finding some old 1940s car in a barn on some piece of land. You sit in it just to feel the leather and the Bakelite steering wheel. You look in the glove compartment and the keys are there. You put them in the ignition and you turn it over, and the damn thing starts the first time. And there you are sitting in this incredible living thing with this great history. You can drive it around slowly or take it out on the highway and go as fast as you can. It's the same with the songs: Once you get in there, and you're playing them, and you're cookin', they're alive again. You can do anything. You can soup them up or slow them down.
And there's a fair amount of responsibility in choosing those songs and interpreting them. For better or worse, that becomes part of the Guthrie legacy.
It's a version of Woody for another generation. It's not like we're grave- digging, finding old versions and sticking bass and drum on his original songs. For most people, the first time they heard Woody was someone doing a cover of him. If you were into singer/songwriters in the '70s, almost every one did a Woody Guthrie song. That's the way I first heard those songs. And I think of Mermaid Avenue as the next link in that process ... What I hope we're doing is bringing out another dimension in Woody a Woody Guthrie who was in love with Ingrid Bergman, who went out and got drunk with his sailor buddies, a Woody Guthrie who wrote love songs.
Your new Rhino compilation Reaching to the Converted has been a pleasant surprise. I didn't have high expectations for a set billed as "Rarities and B-Sides," but songs like "Ontario, Quebec and Me" and the monologue "Walk Away Renee" are as beautiful as anything you've written.
There's a story about that. When we were recording the original version of "Greetings to the New Brunette" (in 1986), Johnny Marr (of the Smiths) played guitar on it. He had come in to do the acoustic overdub, just sitting in the studio with the mics around him, and he started playing "Walk Away Renee." I told the engineer to roll the tapes, and I took a cassette of it home on the tube train and wrote this monologue coming back on the train in the morning. I played it for Johnny, and he said, "Let me record it properly." It was a B-side to "Levi Stubbs' Tears," but it got radio play in England at the time, and it's quite cherished by fans.
Do you find it strange to listen back to songs you wrote in the '80s, songs written in the heat of a political moment?
If you listen to "Days Like These," it's very specific about the coming 1987 elections, and there's nothing I can do about that. If you're going to write polemical songs, they tend to be a snapshot. But, conversely, "I Don't Need This Pressure Ron" I sang yesterday on KCRW (a Los Angeles public-radio station), and every single word as I sang it pertains to what I'm doing now. It's a credo, rather than just a song. If you were setting out to be a political artist of any kind, I think there are things revealed in that song about the reality of trying to change the world by singing about it. It took me a while to pick up on those things. The Clash said they were going to change the world. I believed them. But the sad reality was that when it came my turn to change the world, it's not as simple as that.
In "Wishing the Days Away" you sing, "Sometimes I take a notion/ To put a torch to the tools of my trade." How does a politically committed artist avoid despair? Very little seems to change, and one wonders what good it all is.
I don't expect to see the results. I don't expect to see the world change as I ring the chimes of my songs down upon people. Someone came up to me at a gig in New York and said it was the inspiration of my songs that made him a labor lawyer now. Far be it from me to claim that people have better labor relations in New York because of me. The reality of it is that I was the soundtrack to his own efforts to make a better society. I worked very strongly with Artists Against Apartheid in the '80s, and I feel a sense of pride when I hear the new South African anthem. All that time we campaigned against nuclear weapons in Europe, to see the end of the Cold War, gives me a sense that we did achieve something. I forget who said it now, but somebody said that liberty is an eternal struggle. The question is whether you want to give of yourself. In Britain, at the moment, Tony Blair is promoting something called the "third way" between the left and the right. I don't believe that. The reason that politics are left and right is that there are people who care about the environment, and I mean that in every definition of the word, and there are people who don't give a fuck. Our job, as those who care, is that it become our agenda that society is moving toward, rather than people who don't give a fuck. It's a mighty big picture.
Billy Bragg and the Blokes perform at Mississippi Nights on Saturday, Sept. 11. Freedy Johnston opens.