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British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg has always covered a central role in the politically active music scene, taking clear stands towards society. Nevertheless, he is also one of the most capable love song writers of our time, and an artist travelling the path of folk music through its original sentiment.
Billy Bragg undertook a world tour this year that satisfied a large number of fans scattered around the globe, and he will come back in 2013 with a new album and more live performances.
Toonari Post had the chance to interview this great artist about his recent work ‘Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions,’ his vision of music and society, and his approach to the music craft.
Toonari Post (TP): ‘Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions’ was released this year. In those albums, you worked with Wilco to give life to some of the lyrics that Woody Guthrie left behind. How was it for you to work with somebody else’s material? You have had many collaborations, but in this case, the artist was not present, and could not give directions to the complete work. What was you approach and your feelings in this regard?”
Billy Bragg (BB): Woody Guthrie actually left sometimes messages on the bottom of the lyrics that I could read, so it was almost like I was collaborating with him via fax…that he would send me lyrics and I would have to work out a tune. It was a great thing to do.
TP: Was there some sort of anxiety, not being sure about the right way to approach them?
BB: Well, I think once you approach a project like this, you have a choice: you can albeit do it the way you imagine it, or do it the way you imagine that Woody would have done it. Nora Guthrie expressly asked me to change people’s perception of Woody Guthrie; she wanted people to think differently about her father. She encouraged me to choose songs that people would be amazed to find that Guthrie had written, like a song about a making love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of an Italian volcano. When it’s my job to challenge the idea of Woody Guthrie, then I guess I can use the music that I think is right, rather than worrying about the music that Woody might have made.
TP: Well, the result was pretty great.
BB: I think we were trying to bring Woody into the 21st century, to introduce him to a new generation. I think Nora, his daughter, felt that her father had become rather two-dimensional; he had become an icon, he had become known only for his songs about the ‘Dust Bowl’ and for inspiring Bob Dylan, and she felt like in the lyrics he had left there was another Woody Guthrie, a much more three dimensional, human, exciting, challenging WG and she wanted us to bring that Woody Guthrie, so that she could announce him to the world. I think she felt that the academics were taking control of her father. And the voice in the archive was a different voice, to challenge the academics, so she asked us to help her to challenge that idea by choosing something, choosing music that people wouldn’t imagine Woody Guthrie would do.
TP: You said you tried to take Guthrie to this era, nevertheless the mood in the collection is quite nostalgic, it gives the idea of a lost time. It sounds very true, very straightforward. It seems set in the past, in a good way of course.
BB: Right, if you think about some of the songs he’s famous for writing, I mean Woody Guthrie wrote a song called ‘I ain’t got no home in this world anymore;’ the images in that songs, of people losing their houses to the bank, people having to travel away from their family to find a job, not getting proper healthcare…those are things happening today in Europe to people. ‘Ain’t got no home’ is 70 years old but it could have been written this year.
TP: Do you think that that true sentiment expressed by this music represents the current state of our society?
BB: I think that our current society is not as quite as honest as Woody Guthrie is. I think we were trying to put Woody Guthrie into the music that he inspired, you know, he inspired Bob Dylan. Joe Strummer was inspired by Woody Guthrie, I was inspired by him, you know, we were trying to use the music of his children and of his grandchildren to help him to get his message out.
TP: This year you engaged in a world tour, where you promoted the work done in Mermaid Avenue, also as homage to the 100th anniversary of Guthrie’s birth. What were your hopes about the image the audience would capture of him? Is this what you were talking about, his more human side?
BB: Absolutely. I hope they can see that his politics came from a basic fundamental humanity rather than an ideological argument. I think it’s very important for people to understand that you don’t need to be an expert in politics to write songs about the pressure that people feel because of the economic situation. You just need to write honestly about how you feel, and I hope that message comes across from the material.
Image Courtesy : Pieter.morlion