The punk kid inside Billy Bragg must have been amused (in some weird way) by the buzzing whirl of Taylor Swift superfans, who dotted the lobby of his Nashville hotel the weekend of this year's Americana Music Association Festival and Conference. He'd come to Nashville to play some music, catch up with old friends, and answer questions in front of a live audience during the conference. He chose a different hotel, no doubt for the peace and quiet of being a few blocks from the AMA's center. What he got was a pop-nado of tweens in matching t-shirts, giggling in girl-clusters.
Needless to say, none of them so much as glanced over as I and one of the most talented artists to have ever gleaned influence from American folk music, sat in the corner and geeked out about the folksinger tradition.
The night before our interview, Bragg joined Rosanne Cash and Richard Thompson for one of the most talked-about sets of the AMA festival. He was fresh off the release of his latest album, Tooth and Nail, a disc he recorded at Joe Henry's place, with an all-American backing band.
He had also just published an article in the Guardian claiming the British invented Americana music. He cited several examples, connecting traditional American folk and blues with skiffle, the Beatles, and ultimately the things Americans did with the Beatles' influence, in order to develop their interpretation of country and rock and roll into what has since become Americana music. Being a big nerd about American folk music myself, and having followed Bragg's career as both British folk-punk troubadour and a natural inheriter of Woody Guthrie's legacy, that article seemed like a good place to begin our interview. After all, I already wanted to talk to Bragg about the difference between how Americans relate to folk music traditions, versus how the Brits do.
Kim Ruehl: In America, the mainstream [idea is that] folk music started in the 1960s with Bob Dylan – which it didn’t – but the English seem to have a better grasp on what folk music is.
Billy Bragg: I’m not sure they do. They’re embarrassed about folk music, the British. It’s something the Scots and Irish do when they’re drunk.
The key thing for me is skiffle. Skiffle is a really weird period that doesn’t really have a corollary in the United States of America. It’s almost like a cult in the 50s. For kids, candy was rationed until the mid-50s. Clothes were rationed. The music on the radio was sort of like [makes a face], and anything American was brilliant. Anything that came from America was exciting – the cowboy programs were fascinating. Davy Crockett was massive in the 50s. Skiffle kind of somehow snuck into that, almost like the craze of hula hoops. It’s more like that than a cultural movement. I know, it’s weird. But with 15 year old boys, there weren’t blues fans. Literally Paul McCartney is 15 when he meets John, who’s 17, and they start a skiffle band. These kids use skiffle music to escape austerity, which is all they’ve ever known. The Beatles were born in the war; the Stones were born in the war. All those bands didn’t really know anything else other than austerity.
Playing music allows you to transcend your surroundings momentarily. What I mean is, my son, who sits in his bedroom and plays his guitar, he’s not really in an upstairs flat in England, he’s at CBGBs in 1977. Skiffle was a way for kids to pull themselves out of a world they thought was boring and drab and fixated on the past.
England was trying to work out what was left of the empire and clinging to the Queen. Skiffle became a way of escaping from that.
Every salient boy in the UK knew the three chords necessary to play Chuck Berry’s entire repertoire. When that happened, they were kind of ready, like a bunch of crazy paratroopers who were just waiting for the red light. When the red light came, they started to buy electric guitars, go to Hamburg... Obviously American kids were doing the same thing. Bob Dylan was…but something else was going on [in America]. There was a frantic energy to escape, in the Brits, that very easily matches up [to skiffle].
It’s almost as if they were trying to plug into rock and roll, they had an American plug trying to plug into a British [wall]. They’ve got the American type plug and they punched it into rock and roll.
I mentioned in the article the way the Kingston trio played Tom Dooley, as a funeral song, whereas Donovan plays it [claps his hands in rapid succession, singing] “Lay down your head Tom Dooley”. He’s already…it’s got velocity. It’s not far from that to Hamburg. It’s not a long way to go. I think for American kids, culture in the 60s, you’d not turn up to your local church fair and play Muddy Waters or Little Richard. It wasn’t conceivable. It just wasn’t done. Whereas, in the church fairs where Lennon and McCartney went, they were playing Leadbelly, they were playing Little Richard, and it’s totally acceptable. That ability to consume American culture without [the baggage]… it’s a strength of the British to take where it came from, even someone yodeling, and make it acceptable.
They took it, interpreted it, and gave it right back to Americans.
Yeah, it’s true. I don’t know how or why that happened. All I know is they got ahead of the curve. They were inspired by American roots music, blues, country, gospel, doo wop. I think Americana is where it comes home. Robert Hunter, Mavis Staples, Steven Stills, me, [Richard] Thompson… we all came back from where Woody and everybody else always were. It’s about listening to music and adapting it.
Woody talks about it in Mermaid Avenue, one of the songs… [he talks] about learning it from a black guy who was playing it outside a barbershop in Texas. He got two verses that he could remember from the guy. But it was too good to ignore, so he write a few more verses, and there she is. The great thing is that it’s 1935, and he calls this guy Spiderfinger, because he has very long fingers that walk up and down the guitar like a spider. That’s what he says. As soon as I read that, I saw that famous photograph of Robert Johnson sitting with his guitar and he’s got very long fingers, you know. Well, Robert Johnson was in Texas in 1935 and so was Woody. I’m not saying… it just puts Woody in that context. But if you listen to Jimmie Rodgers, all that yodel stuff, it’s straight out of the blues, just feeding off each other. And Americana is where that all comes back again. It’s our common heritage.
How do you think folk music came to be thought of as political music? All of that stuff – and even a lot of what Woody did – was not really overtly political music…
Right. My understanding of it in the United States of America anyway, was that the Communist Party of the United States thought that music was the best way to spread the word, and they encouraged artists to go out and write political songs, and sing political songs. Woody came from the opposite way to that – he was already doing it. He was like the hillbilly Shakespeare. I know other people have been called that, but if you want to put Woody somewhere in the Americana pantheon, he has to be surely midway between Walt Whitman and Bob Dylan.
It was a conscious way to reach the proletariat, writing songs. If you look at early on in the career of the Almanac Singers, they’re clearly being guided by an outside political ideal. Before America enters the war, they’re anti-war, and that’s quite common on the left because Stalin has done a pact with Hitler. Then, when America joins the war in 1941, they have to turn around and become pro-war.
Woody Guthrie couldn’t work under that kind of ridiculous control. But, when you’re part of a cause or a campaign, you’ll go out and write the songs. Like with the miners’ strike, I wrote songs that fit into that. I wasn’t being controlled by a third party but it was clear that music was playing an important role, not only in spreading the word, but also on focusing people’s solidarity. I think folk music articulates the idea that you’re joining a tradition. Struggle is a part of the tradition. You’re not the first person to have fought these battles, and you take strength from that – other people have fought this before. That’s the role of folk music.
Do you think that…well, here [in the States and in the Americana music scene], there are a lot of strong feelings about Mumford and Sons, and the British “folkies”.
Well, how “folky” are the Mumfords? Is Taylor Swift really country music? Is she?
No, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately the only thing that matters is: Do people enjoy the music? But, by rehabilitating the banjo, the Mumfords have done a great service to the genre. Unfortunately they’ve made it impossible for any one of us to wear a waistcoat, which is a shame, really, isn’t it? The banjo players have got work now, though.
Your new record, Tooth and Nail, is not super political, although you did get that Woody Guthrie tune in there.
I did. What I’ve been doing the last five years, I’ve written half a dozen topical songs and put them straight on the internet for free download, which you can do now. In the old days, I would have to wait until I had a new album out to make a comment on the scandal we had in the UK with Rupert Murdoch. Instead, I write it on Friday, debut it live on Saturday, someone films it in the dressing room that night, and it’s on the internet the next day. It’s out there. So when I come to make an album, instead of having a lot of political songs and a few relationship songs, I have more relationship songs, and I’m cool with that.
It seems more effective for the political songs to respond to the world in real time, anyway.
Yeah, that’s what topical songs are all about. That’s what Woody did, that’s what they did in the really old days. They were writing these songs and putting them on broadsheets and distributing the broadsheets in the 18th century. If there was a murder trial, they’d write about it on the broadsheet, and they’d be selling them. Or if there was a disaster, they’d write a news song and sell it to raise money for the victims. I think that’s the real power – the immediacy of the topical songs.
When I wrote “Between the Wars” during the mining strike, by the time it came out the strike had ended. “Power in the Union,” which I also wrote during the strike… for political songs now, you can hear it – Bang! As soon as it’s ready to go, you upload, they download.
It’s like what Pete Seeger was doing with People’s Songs, where they were churning out songs and information about what was going on…
Yeah. I think one of the things that’s challenging, since the 20th century… the young people back then, there was only one social medium and that was music. It was how we spoke to each other, it was how we spoke to our parents’ generation. It was how we communicated who we were, by carrying an album around. You were broadcasting to other people the kind of music fans you were at school. That was the only real badge that we had, that belonged to us, that was easily acceptable. There were other ways to do it, like how we dressed. But to be in our culture and speak our language, it was basically a musical language. It identified who you were at school and where you belonged.
For me, if I wanted to talk to the world and express my anger about things, nobody was going to print my article in the New Music Express or the Times website, or whatever. The only medium I had available was to play the guitar and write songs. Now, if you’re concerned about something, there’s a number of media open to you. You can make a cheap film and put it on YouTube, you can tweet, do your Facebook page. I think the power of music to be our news broadcast as well as complain about our relationships and other things music does very well, that’s been diminished by social media.
I can’t complain about it, really. It’s a pretty high bar to ask a kid to learn how to play, write and perform. Not everyone can do that. So it’s more successful, more people can engage. But, nobody’s ever going to invite you to Nashville to read out your Facebook posts, if you get my drift. If you want to see the world, meet interesting people, do what I did last night [performing with Rosanne Cash and Richard Thompson] in a dark room, getting that amazing feeling, then you do need to learn to play something and learn to write. That’s what this generation may miss.
Is making records a necessary evil at this point?
Yes. Which is why it’s great to hook up with Joe Henry. We can make an album in a week, in five days. It was very enticing to me, both artistically and monetarily, in terms of funding my records. When we got to Wednesday and we had ten tracks down, I was like wow. This is working. If I write two more tracks, we have an album, so I wrote a couple more tracks and got an album. I appreciate the necessity to make records. It allows you to plug into something like this [AMA festival]. It anchors something you’re doing to a campaign, rather than just drifting through. But I consider myself as working in the music industry, not the record industry. The record industry is a weird place I don’t quite understand. And the fact that Taylor Swift is also in the record industry is a bit weird to me.
Do you look at an album like this as a cohesive theme, or is it just an opportunity to capture a moment?
Capture a moment. I was quite reflective. My mom had passed away the year before. I had those songs about the struggle to maintain a long-term relationship. It came together in the right place at the right time. I really needed to do something to move on from my mom passing away and that ended up being the album. Not that the album’s about that, but my commitment to it was – let’s go to the next thing now. Let’s move on. I think that brought something to the sessions.
Is that why you chose [to cover Woody Guthrie’s] “I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore”?
Well, no, that just seemed really pertinent. Woody was writing about the banks, millionaires making huge amounts of money off the stock market while working people couldn’t make ends meet. People were dying without healthcare, and you have this big debate about Obamacare… here’s a song that could have been written any time in the last five years, but it’s actually 70 years old. It’s nice to touch base with Woody’s actual catalog that he wrote.
It was kind of a gateway song to the album, too. It was one of the first songs I started singing. My voice has dropped the last couple of years, so I have to write songs in that ballpark. “I Ain't Got No Home” was the first song I could sing that low. As it’s gotten lower, my voice has become more manageable. I know I wasn’t technically a great singer. Nobody comes to see me sing. But over the last couple of years, it’s become more [amenable]. The guitar is tuned down a ton to give me more room to get in there. “I Ain't Got No Home” was the first song that I worked out how to do that, so it has a lot to do with how Tooth and Nail sounds.
What do you think a song can do for people?
It can do a lot of things: make them laugh, make them cry, make them dance. I think it gives them a sense of solidarity, it makes them feel like they’re not alone. Like they’re not the only person to be in this place that they’re in. they might feel a little bit conflicted and then they hear a song on the radio that just touches a nerve.
With political songs, you feel like you’re not the first person who’s done this. I think a song is more capable of doing that than a conversation. There’s something about music that soothes the pain. You think of a song like “Wichita Lineman” that’s 18 lines, but it just does something. It takes you to a certain place, you know. Listening to Holly Williams at the Ryman the other night, singing her grandfather’s line: “The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky”…it just takes you somewhere.
Are you very deliberate about writing songs, or do you follow a melody wherever it takes you? Do you feel like you know exactly what you’re doing when you’re writing a song?
No. I’m just open to ideas. I know exactly what I’m doing when I’m singing it and finally putting it out there, I feel confident this is what I want to say. But it’s complicated, you put some bits in that don’t quite marry up. You sing it out and you’re like, oh, that ain’t quite working. You have to pull a few bits out.
Generally, most of the songs we recorded, I’d written them for the record so I hadn’t really played them much before. Joe’s musicians that he called together were very sympathetic to my songs so they sound great even though there wasn’t a huge amount of time we spent. They made them smooth.
Anything else you want to talk about?
We also invented baseball. Did you know that?
Yeah, but I think you call it cricket.
No, it’s called rounders. The girls can’t play cricket at school, they play netball, which is like basketball but you can’t move when you have the ball. You have to stand still.
Anyway, rounders, is on a diamond with a small bat. A one-handed bat that you can hit out to the outfield.
And that pre-dates American baseball?
Yeah, there’s a drawing of people playing a game with the two words: base ball. And a drawing of a diamond with people standing there with a bat, from 1770, before your country was even invented. We invented a lot of sports: soccer, rugby, tennis, swimming…
No. The Scottish invented golf. We invented basketball.