We saw Billy Bragg last night in Northampton MA. He was in the States primarily to do a fundraiser for Huntington’s disease research on the 40th anniversary of Woodie Guthrie’s death. The good news is that researchers believe they are 3-5 years from providing, while not a cure, certainly major progress in lessening the debilitating results of the tragic disease that killed Woody Guthrie.
Bragg did several songs from his upcoming CD for the first time ever before a live audience. His political instincts remain progressive. One song was titled “Oh freedom, the liberties taken in your name.” Another dealt with neoliberal exploitation of Third World countries, and the CEO’s and governments that allow it – “No power without accountability” went the refrain.
He spoke of how he got politicized in 1978. He was eighteen, working an at office where there was much casual racism, sexism, and homophobia. He heard the Clash were headlining a free concert, part of Rock Against Racism, and went. It wasn’t that the Clash played that was the primary thing, it was that he was standing in a crowd of 100,000 other young people and realized for the first time that he was no longer alone, that they were all standing together against racism.
Nearly thirty years later, he still making that stand for progressive causes with his trademark powerful punk-fueled singer-songwriter persona and lyrics. He closed with a new song, dedicated to the audience that has supported him these past twenty years. It was about faith, and how faith is the basis of solidarity.
The Hartford Courant profiled him, detailing his work for the Guthrie family.
Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, invited Bragg to set to music some of the thousands of songs her folk-icon father had never recorded. The project, in conjunction with the Chicago band Wilco, resulted in the acclaimed “Mermaid Avenue” albums in 1998 and 2000.
“Woody is like the last of the Elizabethan balladeers, as well as being the first punk rocker. You have to recognize that Woody is the founding father of the political pop tradition, writing songs that have a conscience, songs that aim to ask questions. The line goes back from me through the Clash to Dylan and to Woody. He’s not a link in the chain so much as a great big copper stake that’s been hammered into the ground.”
Bragg continues the tradition started by Guthrie.