The Roxy, Atlanta, GA • September 13th, 1999
Billy Bragg will never be famous. Although he’s written some of thebest ballads and political protest songs of the last sixteen years, he will neverbe recognized on the large scale as our generation’s Bob Dylan because of onefatal flaw: he has integrity. For the past sixteen years, Bragg has been wearingsocialism on his sleeve. Albums with Bolshevik artwork and titles like Worker’s Playtime and Talking With the Taxman About Poetry didn’texactly translate to stellar record sales in the dog-eared days of the Cold War. Songs that advocate the formation of worker’s unions and the right for every manto earn “a living wage” don’t exactly become chart toppers in the United States,where all is sacrificed to the almighty dollar.I’ve always found it amusing thatin America you can talk about guns, violence, sex, and drugs, and tell racistjokes, but if you want to clear out a room quickly, talk earnestly about doing theright thing for your fellow man.
Bragg has preached about doing the right thing for his fellow mansince his very first album – almost to the point of becoming a nuisance. Like astone in the shoe, Bragg rails about social injustices until your defenses aredown and you have no choice but to give him a listen. “Some of you no doubt camehere tonight because you heard I’m a gorgeous singer and I write nice love songs,”Bragg said from the stage of the Roxy during his recent visit to Atlanta. “AndI’m down with that, but some of us,” he added with a grin for comic effect, “someof us here tonight are what you might call lefties.”
Bragg assured his audience that it was OK if they just came to hearthe love songs and “didn’t know the words to ‘The Internationale’,” but with histypical aplomb and wit he explained what it was he believed in. “Some of us herebelieve in socialism,” he said. “We do positively anti-American things, like wedrive in car-pool lanes, we use public libraries and we believe in a freehealth-care system.” Just the kind of dangerous commie pinko propaganda yourmother always warned you about, right?
Billy Bragg has a knack for bringing ideological concepts and worldissues down to a personal level. In “North Sea Bubble,” he warns “people aredifferent, and so are nations, you can borrow ideas but you can’t borrowsituations.” In “Upfield,” he sings about a “socialism of the heart,” – and it’sthat kind of socialism he’s committed his career to, at the expense of a largeraudience.
“There are basically two kinds of people in this world,” he saidduring his Atlanta performance. “Those who care about their families, theirfriends, and their communities, and those who don’t give a shit about anyone elsebut making a profit for themselves.”
When you consider that we are living through a robust, boomingeconomy while over half of the world’s population continues to live in poverty,that CEO pay in the United States has risen to 419 times the average worker’s pay(up from 40 times the average worker’s pay in 1980), and that cities like Atlantalose 40 acres in timberland per day, you begin to see that we live in a societywhere a lot is sacrificed to the benefit of the very few. This has repercussionson all of us – on the quality of life we are living, on the quality of life weleave for our children.
Bragg calls for social change, and he does so with a grin and hisguitar. Unlike the whiny folk singers of the early 70’s, Bragg has a pragmaticvision of what the world could be, and he uses logic and humor to get his pointsacross. During his Atlanta performance he used soccer as an analogy to Americanselfishness and isolationism. “Soccer is a collective game with moments ofindividualism,” he said. “In American football you get a lot of running, running,running, catching and then everyone stands around touching each other. Soccer isthe sport of internationalism. While you continue to play American football,you’ll find you’re only playing with yourself!”
The first song I ever heard by Billy Bragg was his classic “Greetingsto the New Brunette.” I was taken by lines like “I’m celebrating my love for youwith a pint of beer and a new tattoo,” and “you’re my reason to get out of bedbefore noon.” I bought the record and immediately returned it when I found it wasfull of songs like “Ideology,” which called for “schoolbooks, beds in hospitalsand peace in our bloody time.” In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a surprisethat someone so in tune with the subtle politics of male and female relationshipswould have an impassioned concern for the well being of the human race.
Say what you will about his politics, but there’s something to beadmired in a man who will put what he believes in ahead of fame, money andshort-term gain.
“I see no shame in putting my name to socialism’s cause,” he sings onthe final track of Preaching to the Converted , “Nor seeking some morerelevance than spotlight and applause.”On the grand scale, Bragg will probablynever be famous, but he’ll always have something more than that. He’ll have hisintegrity.