Stephen William Bragg, the "Bard of Barking" - English socialist singer-songwriter. b. 1957
"I want to say here right now that I think bigotry is genetic in people"
"...what I do now is rather than look around for people who define themselves as socialists, I look around for people who are active in a compassionate way and I'm willing to work with anybody who believes in a more compassionate and equal world"
Outspoken and politically charged, Billy Bragg is one of those powerhouse songwriters whose take on life, love and the world really challenges the listener. Influenced by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, he has garnered favour with a worldwide audience with his strong, rough voice and raw folk-pop-punk music.
Born in Barking on 20th December 1957, his upbringing was straightforward for working-class Essex - he did only moderately well at school, and left with few qualifications, but declined the usual careers at the Ford assembly plant or Army. Instead, he learned to play guitar from a neighbour, forming a band called Riff Raff, influenced by The Faces, The Small Faces, The Rolling Stones and the like. The band was not a great success, and young Billy was temporarily disillusioned, and joined the Army.
Following his discharge, he returned to London, and took to busking and gigging in pubs, and eventually managed to get a demo tape accepted by Charisma Records, and as a result, Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy was released, in 1983. Billy was determined that his work would get radio play, and once rushed to deliver a curry to John Peel after hearing him say he was hungry on air. Peel rewarded him by playing several tracks.
Brewing Up with Billy Bragg saw the light of day in 1984, and confirmed his raw-edge approach to life, love and politics. He was almost frantically touring and gigging wherever he could play, spreading his gospel of what he saw as "common-sense Socialism" in the face of the Thatcherism endemic in England, and outspoken against racism and injustice. Ever willing to lend his hand (and voice) to a cause, he helped form the Red Wedge in support of the Labour Party, and threw his weight behind the miners during their strike of 1984 and 1985.
In 1986 he went on to release Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, which he described as "difficult" (it was worth it—the album got into the UK top 10). Although he still championed the politics of Red Wedge, with the Labour Party moving toward a more populist stance, he began to lose his drive to see Labour in power and focused instead on the wider aspects of social justice, campaigning (and singing, they were one and the same) about issues as diverse as political prisoners, homosexuality in the military, race hate and legal injustice.
Worker's Playtime continued his championing of the oppressed and the social underdog alike, and The Internationale saw a return to his harder and more evangelical political songs, although in the light of the centralism of Labour, they fell largely on deaf ears. Don't Try This At Home attempted to offer a more commercial face of Bragg - he seemed disillusioned with politics for this, and was by this time giving much time to other social issues, notably AIDS and acceptance of others' sexuality.
By 1998, he was moving musically again - this time into Woody Guthrie country. Nora Guthrie (Woody's daughter) had asked him to review many of her father's lyrics, and he went on to record many of them for Mermaid Avenue, with the musical backing of the band Wilco. Followed up by a second album in 2000, this represented a new move, focusing more on the music, which was fine indeed - critical acclaim for both albums followed. He says "It's my belief that Woody Guthrie is the original first singer/songwriter" and cites him as a later influence, and certainly it is in keeping with the political folk tradition Billy himself was following and helping to form.
Politics and Influences
Here is one man who wears his heart on his sleeve. His uncompromising stance on social and political issues mark him as strongly left-wing, yet his compassion and humanity shine through at every opportunity. Unafraid to tell songs of the romantic heart as well as the political, his love songs are wondrous, New England still being one of my favourite tracks (also covered admirably by the awesome Kirsty MacColl). He has performed at many fund- and awareness-raising gigs (including the Artists Against Apartheid in 1987), and never regretted that his audience remained small (with average album sales of 70,000, he can't afford to) because they cared about his music and themes.
Music seems always to have played a great part in his life. Influences from the Stones through Smokey Robinson and of course, punk music are visible throughout his career. Political music always moved him. He has cited Bob Dylan as being strongly influential, and of course Woody Guthrie is prominent among his mentors. He in turn has influenced many, especially politically - thousands joined the Labour Party as a result of his songs (although he admits that if not for the miners, he'd probably have stuck to romantic ballads).
His collaborations include Kirsty MacColl, Johnny Marr, Leon Rosselson and REM. His personal life finally resolved into collaboration when he married in 1992, and currently lives in Dorset, along with his son. Still active politically, if more quietly, Billy Bragg is still moving people.
England, Half English 2002
Mermaid Avenue Vol. 2 2000
Reaching To The Converted 1999
Mermaid Avenue 1998
Billy Bragg - The Peel Sessions 1997
Bloke On Bloke Limited 1997
William Bloke 1996
Don't Try This At Home 1991
The Internationale 1990
Workers Playtime 1988
Help Save The Youth Of America: Live & Dubious 1988
Back To Basics 1987
Talking With The Taxman About Poetry 1986
Brewing Up With Billy Bragg 1984
Life's A Riot with Spy vs Spy 1983
Midnights in Moscow 1988
Lyrics Copyright Notice
Tony Cummings on firstname.lastname@example.org says "You are welcome to continue reproducing Billy's lyrics on your web site as long as you acknowledge him as the writer of the words and music (if applicable)".
Quotes from an AOL open chat session