Billy Bragg keeps the progressive home fires burning and cynicism at bay.
If there's one person you would expect to condemn the present state of America's political affairs, it would be Billy Bragg, right? Surely Britain's punk poet laureate should be grabbing every microphone within reaching distance to decry the evils of our current administration. But surprisingly, his reaction is quite the opposite. "I'm encouraged by the results of the last two elections, because I believe that America has not yet decided what kind of country it's going to be in the 21st century," he says on the phone from Winnepeg.
Bragg is currently on a bit of a multitasking tour to showcase his two latest works: Volume II (YepRoc), a box set, and The Progressive Patriot, a book. While Volume II is an expected retrospective that covers the second half of Bragg's career from 1988 onward, The Progressive Patriot is uncharted territory for the singer-songwriter, a treatise that addresses Britain's national identity, the emergence of organized racism, and the political road that weaves between the two.
Much as in Britain, Bragg sees battles of ideology as a key proving ground in the future of our country and agrees with the concept of "two Americas" as it pertains to the states' political climate. "On one hand you've got the neoconservative Christian right, who are getting everybody to vote and still can't get a majority," he says, "and on the other side you've got the more compassionate idea of America as a multicultural society, which just can't get everybody to vote." Yet as bleak and insurmountable a problem as this may seem, Bragg takes the long view. "I'm in a fortunate position. I have the opportunity to travel around and meet people trying to manifest that 'other' America. Reading local newspapers in America, you see all sorts of things that are going completely against the neoconservative agenda in some states." Volume II picks up at a crucial period of Bragg's career, kicking off with his 1988 release, Workers Playtime (Go! Discs/Elektra). The album marked Bragg's transition from punk iconoclast to, as he would later affectionately come to be known, the "Bard from Barking." Instead of using just his guitar and a portable amp as on his earlier recordings, Bragg included bits of orchestration on Workers, plus a band to accompany his songs of law, love, and everything in between. "The album of lost love. It's my great lost soul album!" he says with a wistful chuckle.
At the heart of that bittersweet collection is the amazing "Valentine's Day Is Over," a woman's lament over her lover, rough economic times, and the beatings that result. "That economy and brutality are related / Now I understand," the protagonist explains wearily. Bragg feels a particular satisfaction with that song and the topics it tackles. "I often cite that as the ideal Billy Bragg song because politics and 'the love song' overlap in that song. It's a really hard thing to do, rather than being a 'love song writer' or a 'political song writer.' I hate it when people divide those two. Life isn't divided like that."
The ever-encircled worlds of life and politics also led Bragg to write the new book, with the ideas spurred by everything from recent elections in his hometown to raising his young son. "A far-right political party called the BNP earned a seat on the council in my hometown of Barking, East London," the songwriter says. "That was a real shock to me because these were the people that I came into politics fighting. I realized that it needed something more than just writing a song." Being a father further drives his desire for intelligent debate around the future of his country. His concerns about nationalism are expressed in the interest of cohesion, not the racist ideal of exclusion. He explains, "I'm interested to hear your background, but what is important to me is how my children and your children are going to get on with each other. Everything else is secondary to that."
As you might expect, Bragg's MySpace page also bears the mark of his beliefs and ideas. It also contains his songs: items that were conspicuously absent during his recent showdown with the networking Web site. Having successfully lobbied MySpace to retool their artist agreement so that the site doesn't "own" any artist's uploaded content, Bragg is now taking on MTV Flux, another networking site that features an upload ability similar to YouTube. A video featuring his challenge to Flux dots the page, along with archival footage of him at various events, such as a concert in Washington, DC, in 2002. That day he addressed the crowd and warned them of a greater looming evil — not of conservatives or imperialism but of cynicism.
He still stands behind that message. "I know from personal experience that cynicism eats away your soul," Bragg says. "God knows Tony Blair's been spreading cynicism around for the last few years. I've had to fight my own." SFBG
Thurs/5, 8 and 10:30 p.m.
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF
Sat/7, 4:40 p.m.
Golden Gate Park, SF