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

Ani DiFranco and Billy Bragg hold pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution at Folk Alliance. Every attendee at the conference received a copy in their gift bag. Photo by Lynne Margolis

And another person who was passing it on was Nora Guthrie, who 20 years ago got in touch with me to ask me to write some music to some of her father’s lyrics. And I got together with Wilco and we made the Mermaid Avenue records. [Applause.] Thank-you. And through working with Woody, I came to an amazing conclusion, looking at the lyrics.

You know, Woody famously said, “I hate a song that makes you think you’re bound to lose.” The only song he ever wrote with the words “bound to lose” in it was “all you fascists bound to lose.” I learned from working with the songs that the true enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism, or conservatism, but cynicism. That is our greatest enemy.

And not the cynicism of the right-wing newspapers; it’s their job to drip cynicism into the national discourses. The cynicism that is the greatest enemy of those of us who want to make the world a better place is our own sense of cynicism. Our own feeling that nothing will ever change. Our own fear that no one else cares about this stuff. Our own sense that all politicians are the same; they’re all in it for the same things.

You know, Rupert Murdoch wants you to believe that. He wants you to believe that. He makes a good damned living trying to make you believe that so he can get away with the shit that he wants to in your country and my country and countries all around the world. [Applause.]

And we live through a time of great cynicsm. The Internet is like a sewer of cynicism. You know? And it’s had a detrimental effect on our work, you know? On our work. Because when I was 19 years old, if I wanted to say something about the world, there was only one social medium available to me. I had to learn to play guitar, write songs and do gigs. There was no other way I was gonna get my voice heard. And that’s what I did. And millions of us like me did in the 20th century.

Now, if you’re pissed off about the world or whatever, you can write a blog, you can do a Facebook post, you can tweet all you like. But trust me, no one is ever gonna invite you to Kansas City to read out your bloody tweets. [Laughter and applause.]

I wrote a song years ago about Murdoch’s newspapers and the Sun, particularly the Sun newpaper in England, which is boycotted by people from Liverpool. We call ‘em scousers. “Scousers Never Buy the Sun.” I wrote it; it took me 30 minutes to write. They play that song at Liverpool Football Club before the home games, every week. Now, if I’d have written a Facebook post of 600 words, you think they’d have read that out before the home games?

This is what we’re talking about. We have something really powerful here. But we have to fight against our own sense of cynicism and the cynicism that is abroad. And let me say what I mean by cynicism. Not doubt. Doubt is the most human of all failings. Never trust anybody who has no doubts. Because they’re either a religious fanatic or trying to sell you a Trotskyite newspaper. And neither of them have any sense of humor. So keep away from ‘em.

I’m not talking about skepticism. You can learn — you can learn from a skeptic. Skepticism is healthy. Cynicism — to me, a cynic is someone who has given up, and they want you to give up as well because it makes ‘em feel better about the failings that they’ve had in not being able to achieve the things they set out to do. I have no time for those people in my life anymore. And that’s not because I’m some … I’m not a level-headed person. I simply recognize the glass is half full. If you can’t recognize that, that the glass is half full, I really don’t think you can be a socialist. I really don’t think that. You’ve got to have that optimism. You’ve got to have that optimism.

And what is socialism, fundamentally, in the 21st century? I believe that’s it’s not worth the name socialism unless it is, at heart, a form of organized compassion. [Applause.] And that takes many expressions. In your country, it’s the Affordable Care Act at the moment. And I wish it was more than that. But that’s all you’ve got.

And fight for it, because lemme tell you, we have free health care in my country; we have to fight for it every inch of the way. We have to fight for it. You get that? They try and chip away at it all the time. You’ve gotta fight against that. Against the cynics.

And the stigmatization of empathy in the last few years, to me, has been outrageous. The use of terms such as “political correctness” and — one of the worst ones, the phrase “virtue signaling.” Whenever you see that phrase, look at what’s being said. Every time, it’s an expression of some kind of empathy for other people, some kind of understanding for other people.

You know, we live an age of antipathy. That’s the driving force in our politics now, in your country and my country; around the world. Antipathy, and a sort of America first nationalism. We have the same thing in the U.K. — the United Kingdom Independence Party. A kind of “We don’t care about anybody else; it’s just us.” You know, we have to define ourselves in opposition to that all the time, as much as we can, because we — if we deal in anything as artists, we must be promoting empathy.

That’s what music can do. It can’t change the world, but it can make you feel things for people you’ve never met, and make you understand the situation of people you’ve never read about, in a song. It can touch you. A song can make you feel as if, as if you’re not alone. And that’s absolutely crucial for the kind of music that we make.

And the reason why the right despise empathy is because they fear it. Literally. You can see Milo [Yiannopoulos] is afraid of feelings. They have to — ultimately — you know, fascism is the denial of all feeling. So we, the people who express our feelings through music, we have ramp that up. We have to make sure what we sing is not cynical; we have to make sure what we sing has empathy in it. Because empathy is one of the — and this is the reason why Rupert Murdoch hates empathy so much — because empathy plus action equals solidarity. [Cheers and applause.]

And if we’re going to build that cohesive society, the bedrock of it is going to be social solidarity with people, across the board, you know? And I know you have a chant here in America, “This is what democracy looks like.” Well, unfortunately, in my country, democracy looks like Brexit. They won. And we’re having to deal with that now. What I want to hear you saying is “This is what solidarity looks like.” That’s what the Women’s March was. That’s what Black Lives Matter is. That’s what Obamacare is. That’s what solidarity looks like! [Cheers and applause.]

And we are here today in our tradition, the folk music tradition — folk as the repository of a collective memory of struggle and solidarity from years and years ago, in my lifetime, and other people in this room’s lifetime before that, all the way back. Beyond Jock Purdon, beyond Woody, beyond Lead Belly. A great, great struggle.

You know, we’re — our tradition, the folk tradition, is about passing on that solidarity to a new generation. Each generation has to, you know; it’s not the same. Joe Strummer said every generation has to work out how to deal with the blues. But we’re here to tell you, those of us with gray hair, to tell you that we have fought these battles before, and these are our experiences. And you need to build on what we’ve done.

Music can’t change the world, you know? The miners lost, despite what Jock and I did. But he passed that tradition on to me. The Clash didn’t change the world. They didn’t even give me the courage of my convictions.

You know what gave me the courage of my convictions that day? Being in that audience. Seeing a hundred thousand kids just like me standing up against racism gave me the courage of my convictions to go back to work on Monday morning and stand up for what I bloody well believed in.

And that’s what we can do. That’s the ability we have. [Applause.] That’s what music can do. It can make you feel that you’re not alone when you stand there together in the crowd; you’re like a lightning rod.

We don’t have agency. Music doesn’t have agency. But we do have the ability to charge people up. To reflect back their feelings on ‘em. To make them feel they’re part of something bigger. And to take away those ideas and ultimately act on it. We’re like a signpost; we’re like a lightning rod.

And that’s what we need from a new generation of songwriters that are coming [through]. I spoke to a lot of people in the last few days in the lifts, on the stairs, who have been fired up to come here. Young songwriters who are writing political songs. People giving me CDs.

And so, that’s the message I want you to take away from here, from what you’ve seen today, from being part of this great tradition that we have of solidarity. We want you to go away, we want you to learn the old songs, we want you to write some good damned new lyrics for ‘em, we want you to find a soapbox, and get out there and do Woody’s work!


[Cheers; standing ovation.]

[Steps from podium to center stage, raises fist and sings, to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:]

From the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run

There shall be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.

For what force on earth is weaker than feeble force of one?

For the union makes us strong.

[Shouts] Solidarity forever!

[Sings] Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever!

Solidarity forever! For the union makes us strong!

[Shouts] Death to cynicism!

[Cheers and applause.]

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