I have been meaning to write something about Billy Bragg for a while. Then some fascists leafleted the area where he lives, slagging him off, and the unfortunate business became a national press story and it’s spurred me on to set something down. That’s all you need in that situation, a few digs from the tabloids. I’m not going to link to the stories, you can google them if you must, but this spoof article pretty much sums it up.
I never was a Billy Bragg fan. I like folk music, I’m a lefty, you’d think I would be. But Billy was a Labour man, you know, Red Wedge and all that. Us Commies had Dick Gaughan and anyway, just to ensure that Billy was beyond the ideological canon, I knew some Liberals who liked Billy so much that they even went to his concerts. That was enough to put me off. I joke, but it isn’t far off the truth.
Maybe I am fickle, I used to like Bob Dylan until I discovered Woody Guthrie. And it was via Guthrie’s music that I came into contact with Billy. Billy had just released the Mermaid Avenue album, recording previously unrecorded Guthrie material when we were doing a big pull out feature on Woody Guthrie’s anti-fascism at Searchlight Magazine. Even though he has been a life-long anti-fascist, that was when we first made contact with Billy. I think if I remember rightly because we wanted to use the feature to promote our work at his concerts.
After that, Billy came out on the streets with us in Barking and Dagenham, visiting his mum and then joining us as we leafleted door-to-door. When we had finished a big session and returned to the Labour hall for some lunch Billy went to his car, got his guitar, and performed an impromptu concert, singing anti-fascist songs. Just like Woody Guthrie might have done. It was very moving and a real treat for everyone who had been involved in a thankless task. Billy was to become a tireless supporter of what became the Hope not Hate campaign.
In between a career that takes him on the road across the world, Billy plays a major role in numerous campaigns. Of course there was the Miners’ Strike and Red Wedge but these were long ago. Today he campaigns for electoral reform. He has set up the Jail Guitar Doors campaign, helping prisoners who the rest of the left have forgotten about. He writes about a proud English identity when most on the left just avoid the issue. This time last year he was the face of the much needed protests against the banks obscene bonus culture.
I am sure he must have second thoughts on calling on people to vote Liberal Democrat in the elections and I am sure we will never agree on the European Union, which he seems to think is a good thing. And I’m not sure I would have such nice things to say about the Queen as he has. But then he has met her, and I haven’t.
But I have met Billy and he is a great guy. Billy Bragg is a British institution, however English he might like to be. While the left doesn’t seem to know whether it is coming or going half the time, Billy does. I don’t think he is the type to let a few fascist scumbags and tabloid hacks get him down. He is an inspiration. Oh, and his music is pretty good too.