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Here we continue with the interview to British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, with whom The Toonari Post had the chance to talk about his vision of music, society and his Woody Guthrie homage.
TP: You have always been very active in the political scenario; do you think that music should generally have this role in general? Or you just found music to be your own tool of expression?
BB: I think it should be both of those things. The problem is time has changed. When I was 19 years old and I was angry about the world I had only one possible medium to use to express my anger, it was to pick a guitar, to write songs and do gigs. If I were 19 years old now, and I felt angry about the world, I had many options. I can blog, I can make a little film and put it into YouTube, I can start a Facebook page, tweet about it.
I think people in some ways forgot the power of music to carry a message. It carries a message in ways that the internet has not quite managed to do. For example People in Norway, in Oslo gathered together to sing a song some time ago. It was a song that the terrorist [Anders Behring Breivik, Ed.] hated, and so thousands of people gathered together in a square and sang that song, to express their commitment to the society that he said he hated. Only a song can do that, a website can’t do that. If it’d just been a website it wouldn’t have been in the news in the UK or elsewhere in the world. So music does still have a power. Only, young people don’t think of it as the first way to express themselves, they have other ways to express themselves.
I’ll tell you what’s great about it. No blogger ever got to play in a football stadium to a lot of people. That’s why it’s hard to make a living from blogging, in some ways it’s still possible to make a living. The feeling of expression that you get from a performance in return for the applause, it’s much greater than you get for getting likes in Facebook posts, so I think music is still a very powerful, very emotive way to express yourself.
I totally respect those people that use Facebook, blogs, and so on, I recognize that the most important thing is to engage, so I respect the way they’re doing it. I think in the Occupy Movement there are genius people who are getting the message out. But let’s not forget music. Music is still a very powerful medium. Music itself can also go beyond words, and that’s something you can’t do in a blog.
TP: How do you deal with fans who do not accept the political view you express?
BB: You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your fans. I accept that, I accept those who like the music, who like the love songs. Facebook is a good form for those people to play with me these things. People come on the site and say “I’ve always loved your music Billy, but I don’t agree with this…” That’s good, let’s talk about it. I learn stuff this way, and hopefully they learn stuff too.
TP: You have always been able to explore and translate your original punk attitude also into other ways of playing music, such as folk, without ever sounding out of place. How do you do that? Many of the artists that try to explore different approaches to music often lose themselves, you didn’t. How have you managed this?
BB: The thing about folk music is that it is very forgiving. In pop music if you grow old you can become unfashionable, whereas in folk music you’re encouraged to grow old. If you have grey hair and a beard, that’s a good thing. I feel very fortunate that people think of me as part of folk music, I think that’s a very positive thing, and of course the Woody Guthrie thing has really helped in that. It has helped to connect me to the people and I am very pleased of that.
If you think about writing political songs Woody Guthrie is a good place to start because there is no cynicism in his songwriting, in his lyrics, and I fell like cynicism is one of the great enemies of those of us who want to make the world a better place. We have to fight against cynicism all the time, our own cynicism sometimes. That’s why Woody is a good example.
TP: So you think it’s important for people to stop and think about examples?
BB: I think it’s important that people know that other people have struggled before. How they dealt with the struggle, how they came through it. These things are important. Woody Guthrie gives you an example of that struggle; he gives us a slogan “All you fascists bound to lose”, that’s an encouraging slogan to young people for the first time encountering racist politics to have someone like Woody saying that, it makes you realize you’re not the first person who has ever faced this problem. It makes you realize that you’re joining a great tradition of anti-fascism. Those things are important when you’re just learning about politics, when you think that you’re the only person in the world who cares about this, and everybody else around is a racist, so Woody’s message is important in that way.
TP: You can be found on the streets of London playing your guitar, or at a school playing for the students. How, despite your big success, have you managed to stay so grounded?
It’s not difficult, if someone invites you to come and perform and you think you can make a contribution, then go along and perform. It’s really not that difficult, I think it’s only their own sense of pride that stops other people doing it, I don’t know why they don’t do it, you know, it’s my job. I work for a guy who never played a proper gig in his life; he only ever played in schools, street corners, bars, that’s what Woodie Guthrie did. If I am gonna be true to his tradition then I have to do it a bit myself and I am always happy when people ask. I am always happy when I find myself in that position because I think “that’s what Woody did.”
TP: What do you see in your future as a musician? What are your plans?
BB: There will be a new Billy Bragg record next year, I’m just thinking about what it would be like.
TP: Will it be folk music?
BB: I don’t know, I think I need to remind people that I also write love songs. I might feel it’s maybe a Billy Bragg that I overlooked. So maybe I need to make a record that will have more love songs than political songs. It will have political songs, but more love songs.
Image Courtesy : Death Waltz Recording Co