Strummin’ and Braggin’ ‘Bout Revolution + Putting Trump’s America on the Couch
This Week: Billy Bragg’s Guide to The Music of Dissent. You can listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website. You can also read a transcript of the show courtesy of super intern Kevin Doherty. All together now…thank you Kevin!
We can’t begin to tell you how much fun this show was to work on. The various generations that bring you Open Source each week just kind of melted into a musical Vulcan Mind Meld. Conor nailed the Braggmeister, and everyone worked hard on the show — editing, researching music, and of course interviewing (and illustrating) the man himself.
Mary McGrath: The Clash was the band that got me woke in the Reagan 80’s and woke me up from the deadening pop and political haze we were stuck in. It was a gas to meet Billy Bragg and learn we shared the same musical hero in Joe Strummer, the Clash’s gravel-voiced poet. Stummer did an eight part music series for the BBC in the late 90’s with musician Jon Langford (The Mekons, Waco Brothers) called London Calling. It’s basically just Strummer spinning his favorite record tracks from around the world, and it’s amazing. Think of Dylan’s Theme-Timed Radio Hour with a punk twist. Our friends at PRX distributed the series for American radio. Last Strummer plug: British film director Julian Temple made a terrific posthumous doc about him called The Future is Unwritten.
Zach Goldhammer: Unlike Mary, I never had any particular attachment to ’80s music. I first came around to Bragg through his late ’90s work—particular the three volume re-working of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs he recorded with Wilco, first released in 1998.
But that decade was, Bragg says, a sort of dark age for his politics and his broader mission beyond music. Yes, he says, making Mermaid Avenue and coming up with new tunes for all those old Guthrie lyrics was a lot of fun (“it was like going to the dressing up box every day!”), but it lacked the fiery spirit and political potency of his work in ’84.
“It’s just not the same as organizing a political movement for young people during a miners strike. They are two completely different things you know.”
Of course, Woody Guthrie was a socialist too, but the song selection on the Mermaid Avenue albums seemed to intentionally dodge that “This Land Is Your Land” idealism which had turned Woody’s words into sepia-tinged audio artifacts. The stand-out tracks had Bragg belting out bawdy, innuendo-laced ballads like “Walt Whitman’s Niece” and “Ingrid Bergman” (“a great song about wanting to make love to Bergman on the slopes of an Italian volcano,” Bragg tells us, “in which the volcano is a metaphor for his tumescent manhood.”)
The more directly political songs on volumes 2 and 3—songs like “All You Fascists,” “Union Prayer,” and “Eisler on the Move”—used to seem out of step with the times. Musically, the sound was too stuck in the traditional tropes of folk and early rock and roll. Lyrically, they were too direct, too sincere, too straightforward in their concerns and their demands. For me, they didn’t fit with what the great ‘90s alt-rock songwriters—Beck, Stephen Malkmus, Jeff Tweedy in his original work with Wilco—were doing. Their songs were channelling the wonderful style of slacker surrealism that Bob Dylan perfected on his mid-career albums, but they weren’t going back to the early Dylan; the one who had had modeled himself after Guthrie’s dissenting, Dust Bowl era spirit.
Bragg might argue this is just the fallacy of looking for more “white boys with guitars” to continue Guthrie’s tradition. There was no shortage of dissenting rap music in Rodney King’s LA or Rudy Giuliani’s NY. The political violence and discrimination of that era would continue to shape the rising hip-hop underground in the early 2000s as well as today’s biggest stars: from Kendrick Lamar to Joey Bada$$. It’s not a coincidence that the most bluntly political rock band of the ‘90s was also fronted by a rapper:
These shifts in rock and pop music didn’t just reflect a changing aesthetic. Political songwriting had fallen out of fashion—in what was then still the dominant American genre—partly because mass political movements in the U.S. had been defanged by the previous decade. The PATCO strike had been summarily crushed in 1981 without a tune to carry it’s memory (or at least not one as memorable as Guthrie’s ode to 1913).
The loss of labor-linked mass resistance also had an impact on youth culture and the mass media being consumed on the American campus scene. As Jedediah Purdy writes, in his poignant N+1 farewell to his own ’90s ideology:
There were no movements then, and campus politics were tiny and self-involved … a loss of faith in political language lay at the base of an apolitical time, barricaded with ancillary mistrust: of motives, movements, and historical possibility.
By the end of the ‘90s, alternative rock seemed to be similarly isolated and disconnected. Radiohead—the band who Bragg chides for “fossicking in the dark like art students” during their set at Glastonbury while their crowd chanted for Corbyn (and who recently came under-fire from BDS activists)—led the late-stage genre away from the six-strings and towards a more synthesized, insular sound. While Radiohead’s music was broadly political—anti-consumerist, anti-militarist, anti-conservative (and later, anti-Bush)—they rarely offered any vision of a better world. Left-liberal lyricism in Radiohead songs seemed to be expressed only though ambient feelings of apathy, fear and paranoia. Their musical vision of the future was, and is, a relentlessly grey dystopia.
As the genre that Chuck Berry invented drifted away from the sound of Chuck Berry’s guitar, the joyful rebellion of those early rock songs—the dissenting spirit that inspired Lonnie Donegan, John Lennon, as well as Bragg’s own career—seemed to fade away from the mainstream.
“I’ve never really been in fashion — I’m not really interested in that. I would rather be relevant than fashionable.” — Billy Bragg in conversation with Christopher Lydon
In the midst of all these changes, Bragg’s work—rooted as it still was in the lessons of the miners’ strike, his persistent faith in political language, and his simple yet viscerally human “chop-and-clang” guitar style— managed to preserve an alternative spirit within alternative rock. While it may have sounded like time out of joint two decades ago, it feels incredibly prescient today.
His thirty year career—as a democratic socialist with a guitar and a steadfast commitment to fighting fascism, racism, sexism, and homophobia—now sounds more modern and more urgent than that of any other songwriter from that era.
The fresh appeal of Bragg’s well-worn political songs reminds me of Sarah Leonard’s recent NYT piece on why younger voters are now supporting old socialists:
To understand what is going on, you have to realize that politicians like Sanders and Corbyn have carried the left-wing torch in a sort of long-distance relay, skipping generations of centrists like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, to hand it to today’s under-35s.
Bragg, like Corbyn and Sanders, now also stands out as a “survivor” —to borrow Peter Frase’s term—who was able to nurse and sustain social democratic ideas and sentiments through the long age of acquiescence and hibernating resistance.
As Bragg told us, half-jokingly, the last two decades have all “just been a long strange trip until Jeremy Corbyn got elected leader of the Labour Party, and we’re all of a sudden back to the politics of my youth.”
For more on the links between Bragg’s music and his political work, check out our short video on how Rock Against Racism and the “intersectional” fight against fascism changed his life in 1978:
MM: Billy Bragg warned us that our media is still caught up in the reality-based conversation which is now obsolete in Trump time, but we do get nostalgic for real news (or maybe it’s just the “alternative facts” of an earlier generation…). For Kennedy assassination nerds: the National Archives released several hundred documents this week from CIA and FBI files. And there will be more to come unless President Donald Trump intervenes in October when the 25-year deadline set by the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act expires.
We’re not all that interested in diagnosing Trump’s mental health (it’s lame, tacky, and also, yes, there’s the Goldwater Rule…), but we do want to understand his effect on our own national psyche: this is your brain on Trump … how does it feel?
Keep on rockin’ in the free world,
Mary, Zach, and the OS punks