Billy Bragg Calls On Younger Generations To Do “Woody’s Work”

Billy Bragg delivers the keynote address at the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, Missouri on February 18th

Billy Bragg’s speech to the American Folk Alliance, February 18th;

Written By Lynne Margolis February 20, 2017

Few artists epitomize the folk-music tradition like Great Britain’s Billy Bragg. A passionate, well-informed, unflinching crusader for human rights, he has turned into one of the world’s leading voices speaking out against injustice on every front. He’s also a fine singer-songwriter, witty storyteller and engaging speaker; whether his forum is a concert stage, a political rally, a gathering of union representatives or a conference of fellow folkies, he never fails to inspire.

Bragg’s appreciation for folk icon Woody Guthrie led Guthrie’s daughter Nora task him with turning her father’s unpublished words into songs, thereby allowing them to fulfill their potential and carry on the folk tradition of building on what came before. He enlisted Wilco to help; together, they made the Grammy-winning ‘Mermaid Avenue album and started a trend of artists crafting songs from Woody’s and others’ words. (Even Bob Dylan has done it, via ‘Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes’.)

As tirelessly as Bragg works to uphold the folk traditions embodied by Guthrie, he continues to explore and expand on other musical traditions (as well writing beautifully crafted love songs on occasion). Inspired by Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line,” Bragg and fellow singer-songwriter Joe Henry recorded a collection of songs in rail stations across America and released them as 2016’s ‘Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad’. He sang some of those songs — and discussed the unromantic state of America’s railroad system — during a performance at Sunday afternoon’s open-to-the-public Kansas City Folk Festival, held at Kansas City’s Westin Crown Center as part of the 29th Annual Folk Alliance International Conference.

But on Saturday, Bragg addressed conference-goers, including Nora Guthrie, as the five-day gathering’s keynote speaker, joking about the hotel restaurant naming a burger for him before delivering a masterful, no-holds-barred oratory that left his audience cheering. And vowing to fight the power with their own words and music.

 Here’s the text of his Febuary 18th, 2017 speech.

“I’d like to thank the Folk Alliance International for inviting me here, as this year’s named beefburger honoree. I realized this close to Kansas, being named after something with beef in it is as good as a knighthood back home. I ate one yesterday, and I don’t think I’ll need to eat anything for the rest of the week. Which is great.

It’s great to be back in Kansas City. The last time I was here was such a long time ago, that I was opening for A Flock of Seagulls. [Laughter.] And everybody in this room had dark hair, and it was slicked up. But those times have changed.

It’s very timely that the Folk Alliance should call upon the issue of Forbidden Folk to be this year’ theme. Not just in your country, but in my country, also, with the Brexit referendum. Right across Europe, in the coming months, far-right anti-immigrant parties will be attempting to wrestle their way into liberal democracy. And it’s a powerful thing.

We were at Glastonbury festival — which is kind of like this but with mud, and less beefburgers — and it was shocking. I mean, not only just for someone — I had run a stage called the Left Field, and I had some young political songwriters there, and we literally woke up that morning and we’d left the European Union and the prime minister had resigned. And I mean, these are kids who’ve, as songwriters, had never been though a transition of a prime minister.

He’d been prime minister since 2010. I mean one of them … was in tears. He had six songs that mentioned David Cameron by name. [Laughter.] I told him not to worry because Boris Johnson also worked fine, and he’ll probably be prime minister by the end of weekend.

It didn’t happen.

Life comes at us fast. Really fast. Who knows what 45 is gonna say this afternoon down in Florida? Jesus Christ. Get your pens at the ready.

But I [rumbled] off to find myself a cup of coffee at Glastonbury, back through the markets there. They’re my favorite coffee stand, and there were some guys there, must have been in their late 20s, and they were — like the rest of us — in shock. And they said to me, “What we gonna do, Bill?” And I said “We?” because this is something that’s not gonna happen to me. It’s not gonna be my possibility to go to Europe that’s disappearing, my opportunity to work in Europe, my future that’s being rolled over here. It’s the younger generation. It’s their future. They’re gonna be the first generation, in my country, to grow up poorer than their parents.

It’s been a few difficult years that we’ve all lived through. But I think the time has come to hear from that generation, and that’s why I’m here today. I’m here to kick ass and take names. Fortunately, most of you are wearing your names on the front of your shirts, mates, so don’t give me no lip, all right? [Laughter.]

But I want to say something straight out the back. In my experience, music cannot change the world. The only people — in the wonderful exchange of ideas that we engage in as artists, the only people with the power to change the world are the audience. Not us.

Let’s not take it upon ourselves and feel failures if we haven’t brought down capitalism by the end of the weekend. It doesn’t work like that. But we know, having said that — having said that, we know that music has an incredible power, because we have ourselves been moved by it. But it’s intangible.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the concept of intangible cultural heritage. Has this made any connections here in the United States of America? It’s a UNESCO program where they talk about things that aren’t made of brick and stuff like that. I’ll give you, briefly, the UNESCO definition of intangible cultural heritage because I think it applies to all of us in this room.

“Intangible cultural heritage means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills, as well the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith that communities, groups and in some cases, individuals, recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly re-created by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history. And it provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”

I would argue that’s also the definition of folk music and why all of us are here this weekend. [Applause.]

But despite that intangibility, I’m gonna talk just briefly from my own personal experience. All I can tell you as fact is how music has had an effect on my life. The first political activism I ever got engaged with was Rock Against Racism in Britain in 1978. I was a little snotty punk rocker.

A different form of folk music — just faster. And with fewer harmonies. But better drugs. Allegedly. [Laughter.]

The Clash were playing. They were my band, a political band; they were a huge inspiration to me. Also, I was an active opponent of the National Front, a right-wing, anti-immigrant, racist party that came third in the general Greater London elections for the councils. They were a genuine threat on the streets. So we marched through the streets of London to Victoria Park in Hackney.

The Clash were added late to the bill. The guy at the top of the bill that day was a guy named Tom Robinson. And he had a great song at the time called “(Sing If You’re) Glad To Be Gay.” Today, that sounds like a great idea. Back then, being gay, you could get your head kicked in, just for the possibility that you might be gay. It was an incredibly brave song to sing. And when he began singing that song that day, all these geezers standing around me and my little gang of mates started kissing each other on the lips.

Now, I was a 19-year old working class lad; I had never met an out gay man. And I was taken aback by this. We’d marched in just in front of a banner that said “Gays against the Nazis,” and we were still standing under it. And my first thought was like, “Why are these gays here? This is about black people. Surely. You know. What’s it gotta do with them?”

It didn’t take very long that afternoon for the penny to drop to realize that the fascists were against anybody who was in any way different. Even us little punks; they were against us just for being different. And I came away that afternoon understanding that my generation were gonna define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation defined itself in opposition to Vietnam and the generation before that against nuclear weapons, in my country.

It was very, very important to me. At the time, I was working in an office. The atmosphere in the office — there was a lot of casual racism, sexism, homophobia. I never said anything about it because I was like the office junior. I just sat there and kind of let it bounce around, and tried not to be embarrassed. But after that day in the park, I realized I really should start standing up, because that’s what my generation were gonna do. We were gonna be that generation.

And so when I went back into work Monday morning, I started to stand up for what I believed in. And the music on that day changed my perspective. And it changed my perspective on the political situation, on my situation, on my work situation. The world was still the same, you know, the trains still ran, my mum still made liver and bacon on Sunday night when I’d come home from the event, but really, my world had gone through a considerable change.

A few years later, I was involved with the miners’ strike in England, in 1984. I was playing solo by then. I was solo, spiky, one-man Clash kinda guy. Tré, tré radical. And because I was mobile, I was able to go up north into the coalfields themselves and do gigs actually in the mining villages where the confrontations were happening.

The first one I did, I went up there, and there was a very old guy by the name of Jock Purdon; he’d been a miner, and he was a songwriter. And he sat onstage with his finger in his ear; he was opening for me. And his songs were more radical than anything I had in my bag. And I sat watching him, and I thought, “God, how am I gonna follow this? [He’s] really showing me up here.”

He came offstage, and in the dressing room, we talked about some of his songs. And he talked about the struggle, the miners’ struggle; he talked about anti-racism, he talked about friends of his who’d gone off and volunteered for the Spanish Civil War.

And he made it absolutely explicit to me that by coming and doing this gig for the miners, I was joining that tradition. No matter what song I was gonna play up there, no matter what type of guitar I was playing, no matter what genre I thought I was, I was now joining that tradition. He made me realize that I was joining that tradition.

Years later, I was at the Vancouver Folk Festival with Pete Seeger. I rather foolishly volunteered to take part in a Woody Guthrie workshop, thinking to myself, “I know a couple of Woody Guthrie songs. It’ll be easy. How hard can it be?”

When I get there, the other three participants in the workshop were Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. [Laughter.] Yup.

I managed to get away with it until we come to singing “This Land is Your Land.” Pete sang a verse, Arlo sang a verse, Jack sang a verse. It was getting closer and closer to me, like a missile. I’m like, “Sorry guys, we don’t sing this in …” [laughs]. I got away with it, but later, Pete Seeger, Pete came to me and he said “I want you to come up onstage with me at the end of the show. We’re gonna sing ‘The Internationale’ for the students in Tiananmen Square.” It had just gone down. I’m sittin’ in the chow tent and Pete sang it to me. I said to him, “Pete …”he said, Bruce Cockburn is gonna sing the Canadian version, someone’s gonna sing the Australian version, someone else is gonna sing …” anyway, he wanted me to sing the British version. I’m like, “Pete, the lyrics are just so archaic. “Arise, ye starvelings from your slumbers/arise you criminals of want/for reason and revolt now thunders/and here ends the age of can’t.”

I said, “Pete, that don’t even scan properly.” [Laughter.] “Can’t I sing a verse of the Ameri-?” He said, “I’ll tell you what to do.” He said, “Why don’t you write a new verse?”

And in folk music, you youngsters, there’s some people you can’t tell to F off. [Laughter and applause.] And old Pete was one of ‘em. And even if I was gonna tempt it, before I had time to form the words, he picked up a flier off the table, found a pencil, closed his eyes and began singing, under his breath, the original French lyric and writin’ me a phonetic translation to take away for homework.

So I took it away and I wrote a verse and we sang it that night and it was OK, and I got to thinking, “You know what?” This was, like, 1990. The Berlin Wall had come down; the Soviet Union had disintegrated. Our whole tradition was going in the dumpster and nobody seemed to be worried about the things that were really important to us that we’re gonna need forever in our journey.

So in the end I wrote a few more verses, and I recorded it. And now, if you look in The Little Red Songbook [Industrial Workers of the World Songs], my version is next to the bloody original version. In the songbook! That’s almost — that’s better than having a burger named after you. [Applause.] So Pete knew what he was doing. Pete recognized where we were. Pete understood what was happening. He was passing it on. Just like Jock.

And another person who was passing it on was Nora Guthrie, who 20 years ago got in touch with me to ask me to write some music to some of her father’s lyrics. And I got together with Wilco and we made the ‘Mermaid Avenue’ records. [Applause.] Thank-you. And through working with Woody, I came to an amazing conclusion, looking at the lyrics.

You know, Woody famously said, “I hate a song that makes you think you’re bound to lose.” The only song he ever wrote with the words “bound to lose” in it was “all you fascists bound to lose.” I learned from working with the songs that the true enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism, or conservatism, but cynicism. That is our greatest enemy.

And not the cynicism of the right-wing newspapers; it’s their job to drip cynicism into the national discourses. The cynicism that is the greatest enemy of those of us who want to make the world a better place is our own sense of cynicism.

Our own feeling that nothing will ever change. Our own fear that no one else cares about this stuff. Our own sense that all politicians are the same; they’re all in it for the same things.

You know, Rupert Murdoch wants you to believe that. He wants you to believe that. He makes a good damned living trying to make you believe that so he can get away with the shit that he wants to in your country and my country and countries all around the world. [Applause.]

And we live through a time of great cynicsm. The Internet is like a sewer of cynicism. You know? And it’s had a detrimental effect on our work, you know? On our work. Because when I was 19 years old, if I wanted to say something about the world, there was only one social medium available to me. I had to learn to play guitar, write songs and do gigs. There was no other way I was gonna get my voice heard. And that’s what I did. And millions of us like me did in the 20th century.

Now, if you’re pissed off about the world or whatever, you can write a blog, you can do a Facebook post, you can tweet all you like. But trust me, no one is ever gonna invite you to Kansas City to read out your bloody tweets. [Laughter and applause.]

I wrote a song years ago about Murdoch’s newspapers and the Sun, particularly the Sun newpaper in England, which is boycotted by people from Liverpool. We call ‘em scousers. “Scousers Never Buy the Sun.” I wrote it; it took me 30 minutes to write. They play that song at Liverpool Football Club before the home games, every week. Now, if I’d have written a Facebook post of 600 words, you think they’d have read that out before the home games?

This is what we’re talking about. We have something really powerful here. But we have to fight against our own sense of cynicism and the cynicism that is abroad. And let me say what I mean by cynicism. Not doubt. Doubt is the most human of all failings. Never trust anybody who has no doubts. Because they’re either a religious fanatic or trying to sell you a Trotskyite newspaper. And neither of them have any sense of humor. So keep away from ‘em.

I’m not talking about skepticism. You can learn — you can learn from a skeptic. Skepticism is healthy. Cynicism — to me, a cynic is someone who has given up, and they want you to give up as well because it makes ‘em feel better about the failings that they’ve had in not being able to achieve the things they set out to do. I have no time for those people in my life anymore. And that’s not because I’m some … I’m not a level-headed person. I simply recognize the glass is half full. If you can’t recognize that, that the glass is half full, I really don’t think you can be a socialist. I really don’t think that. You’ve got to have that optimism. You’ve got to have that optimism.

And what is socialism, fundamentally, in the 21st century? I believe that’s it’s not worth the name socialism unless it is, at heart, a form of organized compassion. [Applause.] And that takes many expressions. In your country, it’s the Affordable Care Act at the moment. And I wish it was more than that. But that’s all you’ve got.

And fight for it, because lemme tell you, we have free health care in my country; we have to fight for it every inch of the way. We have to fight for it. You get that? They try and chip away at it all the time. You’ve gotta fight against that. Against the cynics.

And the stigmatization of empathy in the last few years, to me, has been outrageous. The use of terms such as “political correctness” and — one of the worst ones, the phrase “virtue signaling.” Whenever you see that phrase, look at what’s being said. Every time, it’s an expression of some kind of empathy for other people, some kind of understanding for other people.

You know, we live an age of antipathy. That’s the driving force in our politics now, in your country and my country; around the world. Antipathy, and a sort of America first nationalism. We have the same thing in the U.K. — the United Kingdom Independence Party. A kind of “We don’t care about anybody else; it’s just us.” You know, we have to define ourselves in opposition to that all the time, as much as we can, because we — if we deal in anything as artists, we must be promoting empathy.

That’s what music can do. It can’t change the world, but it can make you feel things for people you’ve never met, and make you understand the situation of people you’ve never read about, in a song. It can touch you. A song can make you feel as if, as if you’re not alone. And that’s absolutely crucial for the kind of music that we make.

And the reason why the right despise empathy is because they fear it. Literally. You can see Milo [Yiannopoulos] is afraid of feelings. They have to — ultimately — you know, fascism is the denial of all feeling. So we, the people who express our feelings through music, we have ramp that up. We have to make sure what we sing is not cynical; we have to make sure what we sing has empathy in it. Because empathy is one of the — and this is the reason why Rupert Murdoch hates empathy so much — because empathy plus action equals solidarity. [Cheers and applause.]

And if we’re going to build that cohesive society, the bedrock of it is going to be social solidarity with people, across the board, you know? And I know you have a chant here in America, “This is what democracy looks like.” Well, unfortunately, in my country, democracy looks like Brexit. They won. And we’re having to deal with that now. What I want to hear you saying is “This is what solidarity looks like.” That’s what the Women’s March was. That’s what Black Lives Matter is. That’s what Obamacare is. That’s what solidarity looks like! [Cheers and applause.]

And we are here today in our tradition, the folk music tradition — folk as the repository of a collective memory of struggle and solidarity from years and years ago, in my lifetime, and other people in this room’s lifetime before that, all the way back. Beyond Jock Purdon, beyond Woody, beyond Lead Belly. A great, great struggle.

You know, we’re — our tradition, the folk tradition, is about passing on that solidarity to a new generation. Each generation has to, you know; it’s not the same. Joe Strummer said every generation has to work out how to deal with the blues. But we’re here to tell you, those of us with gray hair, to tell you that we have fought these battles before, and these are our experiences. And you need to build on what we’ve done.

Music can’t change the world, you know? The miners lost, despite what Jock and I did. But he passed that tradition on to me. The Clash didn’t change the world. They didn’t even give me the courage of my convictions.

You know what gave me the courage of my convictions that day? Being in that audience. Seeing a hundred thousand kids just like me standing up against racism gave me the courage of my convictions to go back to work on Monday morning and stand up for what I bloody well believed in.

And that’s what we can do. That’s the ability we have. [Applause.] That’s what music can do. It can make you feel that you’re not alone when you stand there together in the crowd; you’re like a lightning rod.

We don’t have agency. Music doesn’t have agency. But we do have the ability to charge people up. To reflect back their feelings on ‘em. To make them feel they’re part of something bigger. And to take away those ideas and ultimately act on it. We’re like a signpost; we’re like a lightning rod.

And that’s what we need from a new generation of songwriters that are coming [through]. I spoke to a lot of people in the last few days in the lifts, on the stairs, who have been fired up to come here. Young songwriters who are writing political songs. People giving me CDs.

And so, that’s the message I want you to take away from here, from what you’ve seen today, from being part of this great tradition that we have of solidarity. We want you to go away, we want you to learn the old songs, we want you to write some good damned new lyrics for ‘em, we want you to find a soapbox, and get out there and do Woody’s work!


[Cheers; standing ovation.]

[Steps from podium to center stage, raises fist and sings, to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:]

From the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run

There shall be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.

For what force on earth is weaker than feeble force of one?

For the union makes us strong.

[Shouts] Solidarity forever!

[Sings] Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever!

Solidarity forever! For the union makes us strong!

[Shouts] Death to cynicism!

[Cheers and applause.]


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