His life and music are closely associated with politics and activism. He released a compelling Beatles cover in 1988, “She’s Leaving Home,” which proved to be an unexpected hit across the Atlantic. When the Woody Guthrie Foundation sought to put the legendary “This Land Is Your Land” singer’s forgotten words to music, they called on him to help write the melodies for all three volumes. He is British folk-punk, Billy Bragg.
An odd backpack, "A New England" and Occupy
Perhaps you remember when Billy Bragg burst onto the scene wearing a large backpack that resembled something from “Back to the Future” or “Ghostbusters.” That was actually a unique amplification system that allowed Bragg to go mobile while strumming and singing. But Billy Bragg is much more than just visual imagery. He gained notoriety for his punky style of electric folk and rock, clearly heard in the riveting 1983 Thin Lizzy-ish single, “A New England.” Only Bragg would have the self-assurance to declare he was not searching for another country, but just a new girlfriend. Done acoustic or electric, it remains a gripping tune.
The former Spy vs. Spy frontman’s (he was the only person in the band) discography consists of 20 album titles, among them Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, Workers Playtime, Bloak on Bloak and his latest, 2013’s Tooth and Nail. When he is not in the studio or touring, Bragg finds time for various social causes, including the Occupy movement.
Ochs, Guthrie and oppression
With his idealistic hard-nosed approach, Bragg falls somewhere between the late '60s counterculturist Phil Ochs and a freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with maybe some Ed Sheeran thrown in. It is no secret that Billy B. is an activist with many political causes. He has been known to crank out rousing renditions of “The Red Flag” at his concerts. No wonder Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora wanted Bragg, along with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, to compose the music for her father’s long-lost lyrics on all three volumes of Mermaid Avenue.
Totalitarianism, oppression, tyranny - no matter the name - Woody Guthrie deplored it. The aphorism emblazoned on the soundboard of his guitar pretty much sums up how he felt: “This machine kills fascists.” Bragg and Guthrie abhorred similar things. That is probably why Bragg takes commanding possession of the words to “She Came Along to Me” on Mermaid Ave. Vol. I. In the next to the last stanza, Bragg proclaims, “Maybe we'll have all of the fascists out of the way by then, maybe so.” Bragg is not merely channeling Woody; apparently he and Guthrie come from the same place. They are cut from the same cloth. In many ways, Billy Bragg is a modern-day Woody Guthrie.