Punk must've killed the protest singer/songwriter movement. Or if not punk, alternative rock. Or if not alternative rock, hip-hop. Or if not hip-hop, emo—well, maybe not emo, but there's gotta be some trend out there that's responsible for relegating all those earnest '60s-style troubadours to playing for tips in front of the health-food store. Except, of course, for Billy Bragg.
The enduring Bragg—who just released England, Half English, his seventh album in a row for Elektra Records—has been bashing out punk-inspired folk-rock since the early 1980s. And he has never been less than relevant—or impressive.
Born in Barking, Essex, England, the leftist troubadour with the thick Cockney accent has focused largely on sociopolitical turmoil in his homeland, debuting with a brilliant boy-and-his-guitar solo record in 1983.
Since his first hit, "A New England," Bragg has charted consistently in England, despite never rising above modest-but-fanatic cult status here. But it's not like he doesn't speak our language: in 1996, Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora asked him to sift through thousands of her father's unpublished and unreleased lyrics. You could call it a collaboration from beyond the grave.
In the liner notes to Mermaid Avenue, Volume 2, the second of two CDs released of Guthrie-via-Bragg (and Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy) material, Bragg calls Woody "the first alternative musician . . . writing songs of America's working folk while others were peddling fantasy."
And Bragg says he admired the way Guthrie could be funny and serious in equal doses—a characteristic that weaves its way through Bragg's own repertoire.
Each volume of Mermaid Avenue was nominated for a Grammy, and each is pure joy, capturing the liberating spirit of Guthrie's music without being overly reverential. And Bragg's newest album, England, Half English—a title inspired by British writer Colin MacInnes—continues in that populist vein. The title track, "Take Down the Union Jack" and "NPWA"—short for No Power Without Accountability—offer typical Bragg broadsides. But just when you're ready to join a boycott or fire up a protest march, the album ends with a playful but bittersweet ode to vinyl called "Tears of My Tracks."
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It's not the political salvo one might expect from Bragg. It's more universal and more revealing—and, one suspects, even autobiographical: gems like "Jane Allen" and "Another Kind of Judy" point to a heart that has taken a beating. But no matter how bruised and battered—whether politically or personally—Bragg soldiers on.
When I saw him perform several years ago at the Coach House, at a time when England was enjoying a sense of renewal under Tony Blair's leadership and the Cold War was fading from memory, I remember wondering if Bragg had anything left to say, particularly to Americans.
But after a rousing version of "There's Power in a Union," he answered my question both musically and literally, telling the audience, "Sociopolitical inequities remain, and the distance between the haves and have-nots is great. That really hasn't changed, so here I am."
Billy Bragg & the Blokes and Black 47 perform at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Sun., 7 p.m. $25. All ages.