Interview: Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg. Credit: Andy Whale

Billy Bragg. Credit: Andy Whale - Credit: Archant

His journey along the American railroad took him from Chicago to Los Angeles and inspired the latest offering from the Bard of Barking before he arrives in Great Yarmouth. Songwriter and political activist Billy Bragg talks to DOMINIC GILBERT ahead of his appearance at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

NNF16. Adnams Spiegeltent. Broken Back. Photo: submitted.

NNF16. Adnams Spiegeltent. Broken Back. Photo: submitted. - Credit: submitted

At the beginning of the last century simple stories became folklore on the railroads of the United States.

Billy and collaborator Joe Henry re-ignited that tradition over four days in March, recording their latest LP in waiting rooms and train platforms over more than 2,000 miles of train tracks.

It is that spit and sawdust feel Billy expects to take to the Hippodrome at his first performance in Great Yarmouth this week.

'I always think of it a bit like busking,' he says. 'You are playing to people who may not be familiar with you and need to engage with them.


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'I think Norfolk generally suffers a bit because it is on the way to nowhere, but it means Norfolk is the only place like that in the world. 'I always refer to it as the Norfolk effect, and people will have to make a special effort to go there. When somewhere like Great Yarmouth comes up it is somewhere you do not get to play very often.' Billy added the size of festivals like Norfolk and Norwich suits his intimate approach.

'They are not so huge that if you lose your mate you won't see him again all weekend,' he said. 'It is much more possible to try and suss out what sort of audience they are.'

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The uncertainty is something Bragg encourages in his audiences, adamant not to be 'dismissed as a political songwriter'.

'Things have changed since I was making political music and was defined by it,' he says. In the 1980s he led the charge in organisations including Rock against Racism and Red Wedge; a protest against Thatcher's government.

'In those days there was only one medium available to young people to express their views and that was through music,' he adds. 'Now if you have got an opinion and want your voice to be heard the internet gives you so many platforms to vent those frustrations. That drive to get up and sing is not quite what it used to be. 'Music has lost its vanguard position. We didn't know it at the time, but music was our outlet. 'For my son's generation music is less a way of talking about the world than entertainment. (Although my son does like The Clash so that might be an unfair generalisation).

'There are political songwriters out there now but they do not have the platform. There used to be free music papers always looking for lippy people with opinions, but not any more. There is a need for debate among musicians about political issues.'

The election of Jeremy Corbyn last year hints to Billy that the ideas which lit the fires in him in the 1970s and 1980s are now coming good, played out on computers rather than in chords.

But music still has a part to play in politics, he says, inviting both Corbyn and Norwich South MP Clive Lewis to join him the Leftfield tent at this year's Glastonbury festival. 'There is a sense that things are going in the direction of the politics that we have been trying to keep alive since the 1980s,' he says. 'That is really encouraging. 'I think music should be able to reach beyond domestic politics and out into the world. You cannot make political music in a vacuum, and you have got to be in the middle of a political situation.'

The situation now - Brexit - is a hangover from British imperialism, Billy says.

'This issue has been foisted on us as a proxy argument about integration. That manifested itself in the rise of the BNP, and came onto my radar really while I was part of Rock against Racism. I have always had my antennae up for that sort of thing and will move to address it. 'The EU needs to be more about people than profits. It needs to go back to being a social Europe, and without those rules it is possible a government can play fast and loose with our fundamental liberties. It may be anomalous but it does go to show the importance of a club like the EU. 'Unless we really address the issues of climate change it will be too late. Both the issues of mass migration and climate change, you cannot address as a single nation on your own. 'The British Empire kind of melted away, and when the Conservatives sit down in Brussels they can't help but feel they are part of someone else's empire. That's when we get Boris Johnson talking about being part of the European empire, and wanting to bring back links with Canada. They will be wanting to take India back next. 'They can't take the fact they are not in charge of us all.'

While Billy promises much more than politics when he arrives in Yarmouth, the climate change crisis has gone some way to shaping his latest LP; Shine a Light, Field Recordings from The Great American Railroad - due out in September.

'The railroads can be used in a more efficient way in helping to deal with cutting emissions and getting over our reliance on fossil fuels,' he explains.

It is an issue that transformed his home town of Barking, with the scars of an industry stolen by Great Yarmouth in the first days of rail travel still obvious.

'Barking had a quay on the northern bank of the Thames by the river Roding, and in the 1850s it was the closest fishing port to the city of London,' he said. 'It had 150 ships and was the biggest fishing fleet in Britain. 'By 1865 they found they could land the fish in Great Yarmouth and get them to London quicker than from Barking. 'Now it is all gone, and all that is left is the names of pubs like the Jolly Fisherman. I would say nothing has been more transformative in human existence.'

Billy Bragg plays the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome on Friday, May 27 at 8pm.

Tickets can be booked through the Hippodrome Box Office on 01483 844172 or hippodromecircus.co.uk.

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