At Kansas City Folk Alliance, Billy Bragg Says Music Can Bring People Together

Feb 23, 2017

On Sunday, shortly before 11 a.m., British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg declared he was "itching to do a gig." It was day five of the Folk Alliance International Conference, and, as of that morning, Bragg had yet to play. 

A longtime activist, whose music blends folk, punk, and protest, Billy Bragg was the headliner for this year's conference. In his keynote address on Saturday, Bragg cautioned against cynicism and urged a new generation of songwriters to step up: "We want you to learn the old songs, we want you to write some good damned new lyrics for 'em, we want you to find a soapbox, and get out there and do Woody [Guthrie]'s work!"

Bragg said he planned to close out the conference's final event, the Kansas City Folk Festival, in the Westin Crown Center Hotel ballroom with stories and "some new songs I've written in this Brexit-y, Trump-ity world that we live in." 

But before that, he answered a few questions: 

I thought I would start by talking about your experience here at Folk Alliance. In the conversations that you've had with other artists, what's your sense of the mood of artists, how they're feeling today? 

"The political situation in your country and my country has made people think a lot more about the culture of resistance. And although music no longer has the vanguard role that it had in the 20th century, it still is capable of bringing people together.

"Folk music particularly is a repository of memory. It's acted in that way before. I think it's very interesting that the inspiration for the singer-songwriters of the 1960s was a bunch of artists who were at their most active in the 1940s, Pete [Seeger], Woody [Guthrie], those guys. When times become tough, it's good to know that there are others, you're not the first people that ever fought this before. Others have fought it.

"In our oral tradition, our intangible cultural heritage that we have, we have something to pass on. I was trying to talk about that yesterday [Saturday] in my keynote, and send people away aware that we're a movement, we're a tradition, but we're also, in some ways in musical culture, we're one of the points of the lance, along with urban music. Although we haven't managed to remain fashionable in the way that urban music has, but we're still capable of carrying big ideas and drawing big crowds."

At the Kansas City Folk Festival, Billy Bragg played to a crowded ballroom at the Westin Crown Center. Bragg was this year's keynote for the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.
Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3

During your keynote speech on Saturday, you said that "music can make you feel like you're not alone." And you mentioned, in particular, when you attended The Clash concerts in the 1970s. Could you talk about how that struck you then, and the way that music can create that sense of solidarity today? 

"We know music is really powerful and can move people, but you also have to admit it doesn't have urgency. Only the audience can change the world, not the artist. But that doesn't mean, it doesn't have a certain power — and how does it work? 

"And I thought back to my experience at Rock Against Racism [The Clash performed as part of it in 1978]. And I was working in an office environment at the time that was quite racist, casually homophobic and sexist. I was the office junior, so I didn't say anything. But going to that gig, it kind of gave me the courage of my convictions. But it wasn't The Clash that did that. It was being in the audience, it was seeing 100,000 kids just like me that believed in the anti-racist cause, that made me go back to work on Monday morning and stand up for what I believed in.

"So that being my experience, I've got some objective evidence of how music can make a difference. And I try to do it every night, to create a community briefly in the room. Some nights it kind of happens organically because something happens that day, other nights I have to strive to do it. But I think that's what we're in the business of doing. Anybody who makes art really, the main reason for doing it is because you've got a different perspective you want to offer, whatever art it is you're making."

Most protests songs are too much protest, not enough song. People need to spend a little bit more time on the tune. Because it's the tune that gets into your heart. - Billy Bragg

Your latest album [Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad] features railroad songs. And it's interesting having this perspective, overlooking Liberty Memorial and Union Station. I don't know if you've been able to hear the trains going by? 

"I've been to your railway station. It's beautiful acoustics down there. Joe Henry and I, particularly in that long hall, we could have a good old sing-song down there. Except we didn't come this way, we were coming via San Antonio to Los Angeles. There's a train that goes through here on the way to Chicago, but we went the other route." 

I had read that you had a very limited amount of time, you had 20 to 30 minutes when the train would stop. And you would get off to record. I was wondering if that's changed how you think of either performance or recording, having to get it down in that moment? 

"It certainly reminds me of the way that Woody [Guthrie] used to record, and people like [Delta blues musician] Robert Johnson recorded — two or three takes straight to acetate, you had to get it, you had to nail it, you've only got that little bit of time. And that's how we were.

"We had to find a space that was still in view of the trains, so we could keep an eye on the status of the train for when it was leaving. [We'd] set up with a couple of ribbon microphones into a laptop, and then fire up a couple of songs and get a feel for the acoustics of the room, and try and nail it and then jump back on the train. It kept it very exciting."

There have been a lot of conversations during the [Folk Alliance International] conference about the idea of a protest song. How would you define it? 

"Most protests songs are too much protest, not enough song. People need to spend a little bit more time on the tune. Because it's the tune that gets into your heart rather than in your ear, like a conversation. So try not to put everything, all the things you feel angry about, in one song. And make sure that the chorus is singable.

"All songs are protest songs. I'm a protest song writer in that I write songs about the things that p- me off. That can be relationships, can be politics, could be the weather, could be my football team. All of it is protest music.

"You have to avoid being a 'protest singer' because then you think, oh, I've got to do all protest songs. It would be like being a journalist and only writing one kind of story. You write about as many things as you can. And you want to write about what the world looks like to you." 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.