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Summer Sundae Interview with Billy Bragg

One of the highlights of Summer Sundae 2012 was Billy Bragg’s acoustic set; a celebration of the centenary of the birth of singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie. When Guthrie passed away in 1967 he left behind a treasure trove of song lyrics. The lyrics lay dormant until Bragg, along with American rock band Wilco, created accompanying music for them and recorded the 1998 album Mermaid Avenue. Bragg and Wilco would go on to record two further volumes of Guthrie’s previously unheard lyrics.


You’ve said that the songs you’ll be playing later this afternoon show another side to Woody Guthrie and that they will challenge people’s perceptions of him. Can you tell us more about this and the subject matter that the songs explore?


The Woody Guthrie archive in New York has songs that Woody Guthrie wrote during his lifetime that he never recorded. We only really know about the Woody Guthrie who was the Dust Bowl balladeer, the man before 1940. After 1940 he lived in New York and wrote songs from that perspective until he was no longer able to write when he contracted a terrible disease of the nervous system called Huntington’s which eventually killed him.


From 1940 – 1954 he was writing songs in New York. At that particular time New York was probably the most culturally exciting place to be in the world. So much of modern culture was either passing through there or being born at that time; modern jazz, the Beat Poets and the folk boom, it was all happening in New York and Woody lived there at that time. Tonight I’ll be singing songs he wrote about making love to Ingrid Bergman and riding in a flying saucer. His daughter Nora, who commissioned me to do this work, thought that his image had become a bit two dimensional and we needed to open up who he was. I’m hoping that the people who come into the tent tonight thinking that they know who Woody Guthrie is will leave with a different impression of him.


As I understand it there was no musical notation will the songs how did you go about the process of putting music to the words?


Woody kept all of his music notation in his head just like me I don’t write music. So when he died the music was lost forever. As a songwriter putting music to lyrics is just something that I do. So I didn’t find it hard to come up with the accompanying tunes.


You made a very memorable appearance in Leicester when you played at the ‘We Are One Leicester Day’ ran by Leicester City Council back in October 2010. The event took place just one day after the English Defence League held their protest in the city centre. Why did was it so important to you to come to Leicester the following day and take part in that event?


The people of Leicester were trying to show that the EDL do not represent their views and opinions. You know and I know that the people who marched through the city that day mostly didn’t even come from Leicester. They came from outside to cause trouble so I don’t see why people shouldn’t come from outside to express solidarity. My hometown of Barking in East London was almost taken over by the British National Party when they won 12 seats on the local council and it took a very big effort from a lot of people all over the country to get them out again. Ultimately, I think if we are going to fight against the divisive politics of racism, and in the EDL’s sense also of neo-fascism, then we need to stand together with people who are defending their community. When I looked at what the people of Leicester were trying to do it was to cleanse the streets and show that people in Leicester are comfortable in a city that is diverse. I’m happy to live in a country that is diverse and Leicester has a prominent role in that because of its multicultural nature. So in some ways Leicester, like Barking and Dagenham, is on the frontline.




In the past you’ve very publicly confronted BNP councillors  challenging them about their views in the street. Do you think that people with extreme views should be tackled head on?


Sometimes you have to do that but really you have to do it to organise to stop these people. Confront them when you find them but really it takes a lot of organising. We need to talk about society as we are. When you get to grips with the ideology of the far Right they are talking about a Britain that doesn’t really exist anymore; a white, Christian, monarchist country.


There was a lot of support for the Diamond Jubilee this year but I think who we are was best exemplified by the Olympics. On Super Saturday Night a ginger haired geezer who looks like a postman, a mixed race woman from Sheffield and a Somali immigrant were standing with the union flag, that’s the country I recognise. I also recognise the country in which Charlotte Dujardin wins gold for dressage on the same day that Nicola Adams became the first woman to win a gold medal for boxing. The EDL refuse to accept Nicola Adams as a Briton or as part of our society because she happens to be black. My response to that is that not only do I accept Nicola Adams but I also accept Charlotte Dujardin. I might not like equestrian and I might not have a great deal in common with Charlotte, she might have gone to a private school or not I don’t really care. The point is I live in a society which is diverse and multicultural. Mutliculturalism means you support things that you don’t necessarily indulge in. The EDL are saying ‘either/or’ we have to be saying, I know it’s a cliché now, but ‘we are all in this together’.


You’ve been a big supporter of Leicester singer/songwriter Grace Petrie a lot of her songs are political. However, politics doesn’t seem to be a feature in the same way with the majority of younger musicians as they did back in the 1960s, 1970s or even the 1980s when you started you’re career. How do you feel about this younger generation of musicians who choose not to engage in politics?  


The difference between my generation and Grace’s is that when I was young if I wanted my voice to be heard there was only one way to it and that was to pick up a guitar, learn to play it, write songs and go out and do gigs. That’s hard, it takes a long time and a lot of people don’t make it. Now if you’ve got an opinion you want to be heard you just have to get a website or have a blog, put it on facebook or tweet about it or make a film. The opportunities to express yourself are more achievable and straightforward whereas learning to play and do gigs is tougher, not everyone was the urge to get up there are perform like Grace does and like I do. I’ll tell you this though: nobody has ever written a tweet that can make you cry, no one has ever put on a festival of facebook postings at De Montfort Hall. My point is I get to see the world and connect with people through the power of music.


How do you feel about the other artists that are playing at Summer Sundae?


I think the bands playing here today are great. It’s lovely to be part of this, what a great thing to be able to do. I’ll stick around tonight and see Public Image.


What do you think of John Lydon he’s quite a controversial figure?


I’ve got a lot of respect for him, a hell of a lot. The fact that he did the butter advert well a lot of people had a go at him for doing it but if you see Public Image later tonight you’ll see he’s put that money to good use. That’s my feeling anyway, they do an amazing show.