Ain't nobody who can sing -- or bring the progressive fire -- like Billy Bragg

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Billy Bragg urged Americans to embrace socialized medicine during his Hardy Strictly Bluegrass set yesterday.
Evan DuCharme

During his set yesterday at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, iconic British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg said he doesn’t understand why he was booked for an event devoted to Americana, although he did note that it was Brits like the Beatles and Rolling Stones that first popularized African American roots music for white Americans.

Yet in the spirit of legendary American folk singer Woody Guthrie, whose songs Bragg covered with Wilco on the amazing Mermaid Avenue albums, Bragg yesterday unleashed a righteous lefty diatribe against US political powers who were willing to shut down the government and default on its debts rather than offer universal healthcare to its citizens.

“Health care is the Jim Crow issue of the 21st Century,” Bragg said, also calling healthcare reform the “civil rights issue of this time” and calling for “free health care for every American.”

After closing his set with a rousing rendition of Guthrie’s “All you Fascists Bound to Lose,” he implored the young audience to rise up and “just get true.” Apparently his messages resonated with both the audience and organizers, who allowed him back on stage for an encore and some more fearless truth-talking.

“Socialism is organized compassion,” Bragg said, urging Americans to drop their irrational fears of socialized medicine (not to mention the far more insurance-based Obamacare), before playing his anthem, “There is Power in a Union.”

Bragg closed by saying that our enemy in this struggle isn’t the right-wing crazies shutting down our government, it is our own apprehensions about what can be done in this country, and the fear of advocating for what needs to be done.

“The enemy is cynism,” Bragg said, “and the only antidote to your cyncism is your activism.”

I and others left the show with our political fires stirred, as Sup. John Avalos also confirmed when I ran into him after the show, traipsing through the woods of Golden Gate Park toward the next stage. And I thought about what Hardly Strictly founder Warren Hellmen told me about this festival and form of music when I interviewed him for a profile that ran as a Guardian cover story in 2007.

"I feel very strongly that an important part of our culture is built on the type of music and type of performance that goes on at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass," Hellman told me. From parables set to music to songs of struggle and the old union standards, "that kind of music is the conscience of our country."

He considered bluegrass a vital and historically important form of political communication, more so than many of the upscale art forms that he and other rich people have tended to sponsor in San Francisco.

"I'm glad that we have first-rate opera, but it's equally important that we foster the kind of music, lyrics, etc., that support all this," he said. "Somebody once said that most of the great Western philosophy is buried in the words of country songs. And that's closer to the truth than most people think. A big passion of mine is to try to help — and people have defined it too narrowly — the kinds of music that I think have a hell of a lot to do with the good parts of our society."

And that was something that it took a fiery Brit to remind of us of this weekend.

Comments

I hate to debunk your idealist notions of BB but he lives in a 2 million dollar mansion on the coast of southern England, has a rumored net worth of some 200 million dollars and there have been stories of his engaging in tax avoidance.

Still, as long as you left uplifted, what does any of that matter?

Posted by Guest on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

We welcome all allies, rich and poor, and I'm always cheered by wealthy people who can transend their own greed and support the broad public interest. I was happy on the occasions when Hellman did it, happy with Soros for funding the causes that he does, and happy with Buffet calling for higher taxes on the rich. Contrary to the barbs of trolls, I neither hate nor envy the rich, I just want them to stop using their wealth to subvert the interests of the people and the planet.  

Posted by steven on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 5:55 pm

The wealthy have always been generous in supporting charities, churches and foundations, as well as being active with volunteerism and fund-raising. So I'd like to see less hyperbole about taxing the rich when, in practice, you really cannot spend billions anyway - it just isn't possible - and so one way or the other, they always give back.

You just have to trust in that process rather than try and hijack it thru punitive taxes because, if you do, they and their billions vanish and dematerialize in Switzerland. They are happy to give, but not to be taken from.

BTW, you may have forgotten Tim's piece about Buffett but it turned out that WB giving his tens of billions to the Gates Foundation was also a shrewd tax move. It saved about 10 billion in estate taxes.

That's the other thing about the rich. It's not just that they are richer than you and me. It's that they are also smarter.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

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this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into reactionary hyperbole and/or petty, mean spirited, personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

this is simply a troll barrier

it is a signpost to indicate to the reader that other anonymous posters on this thread are beginning to purposely diminish the conversation into reactionary hyperbole and/or petty, mean spirited, personal attacks and irrelevant bickering

the barrier is put in place to signal that there is probably little point in reading more replies in the thread past this point

proceed at your own risk

Posted by troll barrier on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

It was curious that Billy Bragg lectured Americans on Americana via a damn fine cover of Jagger and Richards' "Dead Flowers" without really mentioning black Americans to speak of. It is like nothing is real until white people appropriate it. We saw the longer show at the GAMH on Saturday night and then I strategically biked behind the Tower and Star stage for up close bike parking.

Bragg's music was awesome, can still bang the "millstones" out on the Telecaster, a hollow bodied now for more Americana reverb, and it is always interesting to hear pedal steel guitar. Shit, I'll count my blessings for seeing musicians playing their instruments live.

Got to see Bragg perform many times in Austin back in the day, but when I was in Managua, Nicaragua in 1987, word got out that he was playing that night and we figured out the bus system and got to seem him there. I've got my issues with the unions, but nothing compares to lyrics like this in "There is Power in a Union:"

Money speaks for money
The devil for his own
But who comes to speak
For the skin and the bone

But his politics transcended wooden and are now leaden. Aside from the tone deafness on the black roots of Americana, the idea that the ACA moves anyone any closer to universal coverage without doing more harm is laughable.

What is it with left liberals that defend the Heritage Foundation and Newt Gingrich's idea of health policy just because the lunatic right fringe opposes it?

Posted by marcos on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 7:12 pm

homage to blacks or any kind of race?

Music like Bragg;s traces less back to blacks than most modern genres, having more roots in Celtic, Folk and traditional Anglo-Saxon music than gospel, jazz or blues. Are you saying Guthrie was influenced more by black music than traditional? Not seeing it.

And but for the migration of Africans to the US, who today would know anything about African music anyway? Seems to me that they owe us more than we owe them.

That said I agree Bragg is tired, lame and dated. His angry young man shtick has devolved into comfortable middle-aged repetition. And if UK tax rates went back up to pre-Thatcher levels, he'd have elft the UK long ago, just like the Beatles and Stones did decades ago.

Race ain't got nothing to do with it either way.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

insurance companies is a mystery.

Why people concern themselves with the politics of musicians is a mystery. I hope the next time the Nuge is in town the Guardian will have an ode to his deep political ravings.

Posted by Matlock on Oct. 07, 2013 @ 9:54 pm

Are you suggesting that anyone is dragging politics into Billy Bragg's music against his will?

Posted by marcos on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 5:18 am

because they are a musician, sports star or celebrity?

Is Beyonce informed about national security matters. Is Jay-Z an expert on fiscal policy? What does Paris Hilton know about diplomacy.

Celeb's ranting about politics is a major bore and irrelevance.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 6:37 am

Like who cares about someone's social life? Inappropriate sharing of personal tidbits on a political chatboard speaks loudly.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 7:11 am

there is this extra factor that their opinions about politics must somehow be more relevant, just because they are good at something totally unrelated.

I don't take political advice from Lindsay Lohan.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 7:25 am

I think you're missing the point, this isn't about Billy Bragg as celebrity, it's about Billy Bragg as artist and songwriter making poignant, compelling political arguments. I suppose that you could just dismiss everyone who isn't a political scholar from commenting on politics, but politics are about all of us and not just a few experts. Billy Bragg had important messages -- spoken and sung -- that we'd all do well to listen to. 

Posted by steven on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 11:33 am

Well that makes more sense.

No one says a person has to be an expert to comment on politics, being able to warble out a few songs doesn't make your opinions more valuable, if that is the case then Ted Nugent is the smartest and most astute singer alive.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

"poignant" because you happen to agree with them. If he did the same songs but with a Tea Party theme, you'd be ragging all over him.

Of course everyone has a right to an opinion. That's why we have elections. But that implies that a celebrity, "artist", sports star or any other public figure doesn't have a monopoly of the truth and, in the end, their opinion about things outside their expertise is no more worthy than anyone else.

I've actually been a fan of BB since the 1980's but, for all his musical skills, he has been on the wrong side of most political debates. But with 200 million in the bank, he can afford some fun with it.

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Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 5:26 am

Great piece, Steve. Thank you. Billy Bragg is one of my all-time absolute faves. Such a great, witty songwriter and storyteller with a brilliant political mind and loads of optimism in the face of all the awful shit in the world.

I've been seeing him live every chance I've gotten since the first time in 1987 and have never been anything but overjoyed at his performances. Sunday's show was fantastic and fresh with the full band and the country twang. All I can say is VIVA BILLY!

Posted by Andy Blue on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

totally suck at political insight.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

I appreciate that Billy Bragg didn't get on stage to kiss a corporate billionaire's ass. But this item compensated for that, didn't it?

Posted by Help Save Them From Themselves on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

familiar with sucking up to the even wealthier.

You think he actually means those lyrics? If his tax rate went up to the same levels that drive the Beatles and the Stones from the UK, he'd be off to Switzerland before you can sing "Shirley".

Posted by Guest on Oct. 08, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

@Guest - Billy has done well by doing good, and more power to him. Nobody cares about your nontroversy.

Now if he had, say, been born into family wealth, gotten ahead by backstabbing his own uncle, turned Lehman Bros. into an economy-wrecking machine, used ill-gotten gains to destroy one of the nation's greatest brands (and kill off one of the city's true greatest philanthropists), saddled residents with the costs of a "private" parking garage on public land, you might have something. But so long as he left a legacy of bread and circuses and said something about the epic grooviness of Burning Man, you sure won't be reading it here.

Posted by Jym on Oct. 09, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

Is Bragg giving away his fortune to help the poor? No.

He's is keeping it all for himself while crooning about how much he cares for the poor.

Hypocrisy.

Posted by Guest on Oct. 09, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

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