Billy Bragg is a British songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist whose unusual style includes the use of solo electric guitar and reverb-drenched vocals. Born in 1957 in Barking, Essex, Bragg’s musical career took some time to develop. There are many inspirational stories about his dogged persistence in pursuing contracts and opportunities that reveal a great deal about his indomitable character, including bringing mushroom biryani to a hungry DJ in the early years in exchange for airplay.
Billy Bragg has been involved in politics and grassroots movements throughout his career. He is notably anti-Margaret Thatcher, and in 1984 played several benefit shows in support of striking miners in England. In 1986, he visited the former USSR under Gorbachev, during the Secretary’s promotion of perestroika and glasnost. During this visit, he performed in Leningrad and Kiev.
In 1999, Bragg was invited to appear before a commission that was debating reform in the House of Lords, where he presented “the Bragg method” of reform—arranging the Upper House to reflect in proportion general election results. He also supports Scottish and Welsh independence.
Bragg’s more recent political activities include joining the Occupy Movement protests in 2011, and endorsing the candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn for leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, and again in 2016. Because of his opposition to fascism, homophobia, and racism, and his support for equity and diversity in Britain, he has clashed with far-right movements, including the British National Party.
In addition to performing traditional songs about labour and resistance, Billy Bragg has penned many powerful original songs with an activist message. The following lyrics are a meagre sampling:
There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hands of a worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a Union.
Now the lessons of the past were all learned with workers’ blood
The mistakes of the bosses we must pay for
From the cities and the farmlands to trenches full of mud
War has always been the bosses’ way, sir.
(“There is Power in a Union,” Billy Bragg/Traditional; Album: Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, 1986)
I stood before the judge that day
As he refused me bail
And I knew that I would spend my time
Awaiting trial in jail
I said there is no justice
As they led me out the door
And the judge said, “this isn’t a court of justice, son
This is a court of law.”
(“Rotting on Remand,” Billy Bragg; Album: Workers Playtime, 1988)
In our determination
To defend democracy
We must not destroy the safeguards
That underpin our liberty
For who will pay the price if
Injustice such as this
Turns our protectors to oppressors
And angry men to terrorists?
O freedom, what liberties are taken in they name
In thy name
(“O Freedom,” Billy Bragg; Album: Mr. Love & Justice, 2008)
In 1985, Bragg formed Red Wedge with fellow musicians Paul Weller (The Jam, The Style Council) and Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat, The Communards). Red Wedge was a musical collective that sought to promote the policies of the Labour Party and engage youth in politics. During the late 1980s, Red Wedge staged multiple concerts and tours in pursuit of its goals. The collective officially disbanded in 1990 after the Conservative Party’s third consecutive election victory in 1987 prompted a gradual dissolution of the group.
In 2007, Billy Bragg founded Jail Guitar Doors (after the Clash song of the same title), a non-profit organization devoted to providing musical equipment to prisoners. The program also funds individual projects such as arranging recording sessions for people who are incarcerated in or have been released from UK prisons. In 2009, Wayne Kramer of the MC5 (whose 1975 arrest and imprisonment, incidentally, were the inspiration for the Clash to write Jail Guitar Doors in the first place) founded a branch in the United States that coordinates volunteer music teaching programs and organizes outreach.
Billy Bragg plays September 26, 27, and 28 at the Horseshoe Tavern. All three shows have sold out.