Folk Alliance Keynote Speaker Billy Bragg Calls On Younger Generations To Do “Woody’s Work”

Billy Bragg delivering the keynote address at Folk Alliance. Photo by Lynne Margolis

Few artists epitomize the folk-music tradition like Great Britain’s Billy Bragg. A passionate, well-informed, unflinching crusader for human rights, he has turned into one of the world’s leading voices speaking out against injustice on every front. He’s also a fine singer-songwriter, witty storyteller and engaging speaker; whether his forum is a concert stage, a political rally, a gathering of union representatives or a conference of fellow folkies, he never fails to inspire.

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Bragg’s appreciation for folk icon Woody Guthrie led Guthrie’s daughter Nora task him with turning her father’s unpublished words into songs, thereby allowing them to fulfill their potential and carry on the folk tradition of building on what came before. He enlisted Wilco to help; together, they made the Grammy-winning Mermaid Avenue album and started a trend of artists crafting songs from Woody’s and others’ words. (Even Bob Dylan has done it, via Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.)

As tirelessly as Bragg works to uphold the folk traditions embodied by Guthrie, he continues to explore and expand on other musical traditions (as well writing beautifully crafted love songs on occasion). Inspired by Lead Belly’s “Rock Island Line,” Bragg and fellow singer-songwriter Joe Henry recorded a collection of songs in rail stations across America and released them as 2016’s Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. He sang some of those songs — and discussed the unromantic state of America’s railroad system — during a performance at Sunday afternoon’s open-to-the-public Kansas City Folk Festival, held at Kansas City’s Westin Crown Center as part of the 29th annual Folk Alliance International Conference.

But on Saturday, Bragg addressed conference-goers, including Nora Guthrie, as the five-day gathering’s keynote speaker, joking about the hotel restaurant naming a burger for him before delivering a masterful, no-holds-barred oratory that left his audience cheering. And vowing to fight the power with their own words and music.

Here’s the text of his Feb. 18, 2017 speech.

I’d like to thank the Folk Alliance International for inviting me here, as this year’s named beefburger honoree. I realized this close to Kansas, being named after something with beef in it is as good as a knighthood back home. I ate one yesterday, and I don’t think I’ll need to eat anything for the rest of the week. Which is great.

It’s great to be back in Kansas City. The last time I was here was such a long time ago, that I was opening for A Flock of Seagulls. [Laughter.] And everybody in this room had dark hair, and it was slicked up. But those times have changed.

It’s very timely that the Folk Alliance should call upon the issue of Forbidden Folk to be this year’ theme. Not just in your country, but in my country, also, with the Brexit referendum. Right across Europe, in the coming months, far-right anti-immigrant parties will be attempting to wrestle their way into liberal democracy. And it’s a powerful thing.

We were at Glastonbury festival — which is kind of like this but with mud, and less beefburgers — and it was shocking. I mean, not only just for someone — I had run a stage called the Left Field, and I had some young political songwriters there, and we literally woke up that morning and we’d left the European Union and the prime minister had resigned. And I mean, these are kids who’ve, as songwriters, had never been though a transition of a prime minister. He’d been prime minister since 2010. I mean one of them … was in tears. He had six songs that mentioned David Cameron by name. [Laughter.] I told him not to worry because Boris Johnson also worked fine, and he’ll probably be prime minister by the end of weekend.

It didn’t happen.

Life comes at us fast. Really fast. Who knows what 45 is gonna say this afternoon down in Florida? Jesus Christ. Get your pens at the ready.

But I [rumbled] off to find myself a cup of coffee at Glastonbury, back through the markets there. They’re my favorite coffee stand, and there were some guys there, must have been in their late 20s, and they were — like the rest of us — in shock. And they said to me, “What we gonna do, Bill?” And I said “We?” because this is something that’s not gonna happen to me. It’s not gonna be my possibility to go to Europe that’s disappearing, my opportunity to work in Europe, my future that’s being rolled over here. It’s the younger generation. It’s their future. They’re gonna be the first generation, in my country, to grow up poorer than their parents.

It’s been a few difficult years that we’ve all lived through. But I think the time has come to hear from that generation, and that’s why I’m here today. I’m here to kick ass and take names. Fortunately, most of you are wearing your names on the front of your shirts, mates, so don’t give me no lip, all right? [Laughter.]

But I want to say something straight out the back. In my experience, music cannot change the world. The only people — in the wonderful exchange of ideas that we engage in as artists, the only people with the power to change the world are the audience. Not us.

Let’s not take it upon ourselves and feel failures if we haven’t brought down capitalism by the end of the weekend. It doesn’t work like that. But we know, having said that — having said that, we know that music has an incredible power, because we have ourselves been moved by it. But it’s intangible.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the concept of intangible cultural heritage. Has this made any connections here in the United States of America? It’s a UNESCO program where they talk about things that aren’t made of brick and stuff like that. I’ll give you, briefly, the UNESCO definition of intangible cultural heritage because I think it applies to all of us in this room.

“Intangible cultural heritage means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills, as well the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith that communities, groups and in some cases, individuals, recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly re-created by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history. And it provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”

I would argue that’s also the definition of folk music and why all of us are here this weekend. [Applause.]

But despite that intangibility, I’m gonna talk just briefly from my own personal experience. All I can tell you as fact is how music has had an effect on my life. The first political activism I ever got engaged with was Rock Against Racism in Britain in 1978. I was a little snotty punk rocker. A different form of folk music — just faster. And with fewer harmonies. But better drugs. Allegedly. [Laughter.]

The Clash were playing. They were my band, a political band; they were a huge inspiration to me. Also, I was an active opponent of the National Front, a right-wing, anti-immigrant, racist party that came third in the general Greater London elections for the councils. They were a genuine threat on the streets. So we marched through the streets of London to Victoria Park in Hackney.

The Clash were added late to the bill. The guy at the top of the bill that day was a guy named Tom Robinson. And he had a great song at the time called “(Sing If You’re) Glad to be Gay.” Today, that sounds like a great idea. Back then, being gay, you could get your head kicked in, just for the possibility that you might be gay. It was an incredibly brave song to sing. And when he began singing that song that day, all these geezers standing around me and my little gang of mates started kissing each other on the lips.

Now, I was a 19-year old working class lad; I had never met an out gay man. And I was taken aback by this. We’d marched in just in front of a banner that said “Gays against the Nazis,” and we were still standing under it. And my first thought was like, “Why are these gays here? This is about black people. Surely. You know. What’s it gotta do with them?”

It didn’t take very long that afternoon for the penny to drop to realize that the fascists were against anybody who was in any way different. Even us little punks; they were against us just for being different. And I came away that afternoon understanding that my generation were gonna define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation defined itself in opposition to Vietnam and the generation before that against nuclear weapons, in my country.

It was very, very important to me. At the time, I was working in an office. The atmosphere in the office — there was a lot of casual racism, sexism, homophobia. I never said anything about it because I was like the office junior. I just sat there and kind of let it bounce around, and tried not to be embarrassed. But after that day in the park, I realized I really should start standing up, because that’s what my generation were gonna do. We were gonna be that generation.

And so when I went back into work Monday morning, I started to stand up for what I believed in. And the music on that day changed my perspective. And it changed my perspective on the political situation, on my situation, on my work situation. The world was still the same, you know, the trains still ran, my mum still made liver and bacon on Sunday night when I’d come home from the event, but really, my world had gone through a considerable change.

A few years later, I was involved with the miners’ strike in England, in 1984. I was playing solo by then. I was solo, spiky, one-man Clash kinda guy. Tré, tré radical. And because I was mobile, I was able to go up north into the coalfields themselves and do gigs actually in the mining villages where the confrontations were happening.

The first one I did, I went up there, and there was a very old guy by the name of Jock Purdon; he’d been a miner, and he was a songwriter. And he sat onstage with his finger in his ear; he was opening for me. And his songs were more radical than anything I had in my bag. And I sat watching him, and I thought, “God, how am I gonna follow this? [He’s] really showing me up here.”

He came offstage, and in the dressing room, we talked about some of his songs. And he talked about the struggle, the miners’ struggle; he talked about anti-racism, he talked about friends of his who’d gone off and volunteered for the Spanish Civil War. And he made it absolutely explicit to me that by coming and doing this gig for the miners, I was joining that tradition. No matter what song I was gonna play up there, no matter what type of guitar I was playing, no matter what genre I thought I was, I was now joining that tradition. He made me realize that I was joining that tradition.

Years later, I was at the Vancouver Folk Festival with Pete Seeger. I rather foolishly volunteered to take part in a Woody Guthrie workshop, thinking to myself, “I know a couple of Woody Guthrie songs. It’ll be easy. How hard can it be?”

When I get there, the other three participants in the workshop were Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. [Laughter.] Yup.

I managed to get away with it until we come to singing “This Land is Your Land.” Pete sang a verse, Arlo sang a verse, Jack sang a verse. It was getting closer and closer to me, like a missile. I’m like, “Sorry guys, we don’t sing this in …” [laughs]. I got away with it, but later, Pete Seeger, Pete came to me and he said “I want you to come up onstage with me at the end of the show. We’re gonna sing ‘The Internationale’ for the students in Tiananmen Square.” It had just gone down. I’m sittin’ in the chow tent and Pete sang it to me. I said to him, “Pete …” — he said, Bruce Cockburn is gonna sing the Canadian version, someone’s gonna sing the Australian version, someone else is gonna sing …” anyway, he wanted me to sing the British version. I’m like, “Pete, the lyrics are just so archaic. “Arise, ye starvelings from your slumbers/arise you criminals of want/for reason and revolt now thunders/and here ends the age of can’t.”

I said, “Pete, that don’t even scan properly.” [Laughter.] “Can’t I sing a verse of the Ameri-?” He said, “I’ll tell you what to do.” He said, “Why don’t you write a new verse?”

And in folk music, you youngsters, there’s some people you can’t tell to F off. [Laughter and applause.] And old Pete was one of ‘em. And even if I was gonna tempt it, before I had time to form the words, he picked up a flier off the table, found a pencil, closed his eyes and began singing, under his breath, the original French lyric and writin’ me a phonetic translation to take away for homework.

So I took it away and I wrote a verse and we sang it that night and it was OK, and I got to thinking, “You know what?” This was, like, 1990. The Berlin Wall had come down; the Soviet Union had disintegrated. Our whole tradition was going in the dumpster and nobody seemed to be worried about the things that were really important to us that we’re gonna need forever in our journey.

So in the end I wrote a few more verses, and I recorded it. And now, if you look in The Little Red Songbook [Industrial Workers of the World Songs], my version is next to the bloody original version. In the songbook! That’s almost — that’s better than having a burger named after you. [Applause.] So Pete knew what he was doing. Pete recognized where we were. Pete understood what was happening. He was passing it on. Just like Jock.

Aaron Watson: Vaquero