A book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers, about the rise of Britain’s original rebel music, skiffle. An album of train songs, Shine a Light, recorded in sleeping compartments and empty railroad stations. And a series of modern-day broadside ballads, to be released digitally as they’re written. One of these is not like the others, which makes attempting to devise a Unified Bragg Theory a daunting, if not impossible, task.
“You can only choose two of those three,” the very busy Billy Bragg cautions, on the line from his home in Dorset, on England’s south coast.
So let’s start with the two that appear to be concerned more with the past than the present. Shine a Light, a joint project with American producer and songwriter Joe Henry that the two will present at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival this weekend, grew out of Bragg’s research into skiffle, the ’50s DIY craze that eventually gave birth to the Beatles.
“When I was writing the skiffle book, I was starting to become aware of the number of American railroad songs that were involved,” Bragg explains. “All the big hits were train songs.…and it struck me that they’re often metaphorical, the American railroad songs. If you think of ‘Folsom Prison [Blues]’, it’s not really a prison song, it’s a train song. It’s not the prison bars that make Johnny [Cash] feel like he’s lost his freedom; it’s hearing the train whistle.”
Bragg goes on to make other connections. An album of railroad songs might seem purely nostalgic, but it’s both a comment on the rot that has infected American infrastructure and a prescription for how that could be reversed. High-speed trains, for instance, could put thousands to work building a faster, greener alternative to air travel between major cities, Bragg says. And the youth-culture sounds of skiffle, he contends, were the social precursor of grime, Britain’s gritty urban dance music, whose proponents came out en masse to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the recent U.K. election.
So there’s the link to the musical news bulletins that Bragg has just begun releasing: like skiffle, punk, and grime, Bragg’s gritty, electrified folk music is about seizing the means of production in order to make urgent statements about now.
“The Sleep of Reason”, a caustic look at Brexit and Trump, was released on the morning of our interview, and Bragg’s already got the follow-up, “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood”, ready to go. “It’s about an issue that wasn’t even spoken about during our election: the rising of the ocean, and the fact that we can’t resolve that by recycling plastic bottles,” he explains. “In Florida, they have a thing now called a sunny-day flood: the weather’s fine, but water comes up from under the ground, not just because of the melting icecaps, but the expansion when it’s hot. What they’ve done to deal with this problem of rising water is they’ve raised the road by a metre—but not the houses. So where’s all that water going to go?”
For now, Bragg can’t answer that question—but when an answer comes, he’ll sing about that, too.
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry play the Vancouver Folk Music Festival Main Stage on Friday (July 14).