Billy Bragg’s Guide to the Music of Dissent

Billy Bragg has been the premier troubadour for British radicalism for more than thirty years: a democratic socialist with a guitar and a steadfast commitment to fighting fascism, racism, and homophobia.

He was the voice of the striking miners in the 80s—reminding us that there is power in a union, despite what Thatcher & Reagan might have told you.

In the 90s, he tapped into a well of forgotten American lyricism, singing and writing music for hundreds of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs, and reminding us that all those fascists were always bound to lose.  

Today, Bragg, like the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the U.S. , stands out as a survivor—someone who carried the torch for socialist ideas and sentiments through the Clinton/Blair years and the long age of acquiescence. Theres’s a new audience of young people carrying his ideas forward now, but with a different tune: hip-hop and grime are the soundtrack of today’s resistance—not white guys with guitars—but the sentiment remains the same. Their history, as well as their lyrics, rhymes with Bragg’s own.

[A playlist of our favorite Bragg songs, curated by Zach Goldhammer, Susan Coyne, Pat Tomaino, Becca DeGregorio, and Conor Gillies]

As an elder statesman for youthful rebellion, Bragg wants to remind us how this whole subculture began. In his new book, Roots, Radicals, and Rockers, Bragg brings us back to 1950s England, where a new form of music called skiffle helped invent the first generation of true teenagers in England.

In his story, it’s the working-class English kids who picked up guitars in the playground and started singing American blues songs—like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line”—and who kicked off a 60- year tradition of dissenting music in the Anglophone world. It was not political music per se, but it was the first rumblings of an anti-conformist rebellion in the UK.

We pick-up Bragg’s story with the first skiffle superstar, Lonnie Donegan,

That spirit of rebellion continued to echo through the British Invasion in the 60s, the first wave of punk in the late 70s, and of course, in Bragg’s own thirty year career.

But today, Bragg says it’s a new sound carrying this rebellious tradition forward. Now, Britain’s music of dissent is being made by Grime artists, blending high-speed English rap with West Indian dancehall beats. These were the musicians who also formed an unlikely alliance with Jeremy Corbyn in the last election.

 

We’ll be listening carefully and trying to figure out where this new musical momentum will carry us next. You can also keep listening  with us—there’s a playlist of all the songs featured in this  week’s show here.

[Lead illustration by Susan Coyne. Prints are available at coyneworks.com]

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

Guest List
Billy Bragg
singer-songwriter and author of Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World

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  • Juan

    Wonderful podcast!

    I’ve listened to Billy Bragg for decades, but I found myself learning things about him over the last few minutes. Got to grab a copy of his new book.

  • Phil In Blank

    Chris: another hit straight out of left field. I did not see this show coming, but I should have. My bad. Billy Bragg’s commentary to your listeners reminders me of conversations I’ve had with Brits these last 12 months. The takeaway: they are not us, and we are not them–nor should any of us seek to be. Notwithstanding that, we need each other for no other reason than each’s culture, politics, and history (since post WWII) have given to the other insights, tools, ways to see, think, imagine. About many of the things that matter. Well done mate!

  • Potter

    Music expresses and awakens to the spirit of the time and at the same time it gets you unstuck from it. It’s close to philosophy I think, but it’s business is the emotional realm. Maybe it’s a way out of anxiety. Bragg’s music history connects past socio-political forces (the undercurrents) up to the present moment. Attention and worry being in this awful moment, this is very helpful, at least to me.

    All the clips, but I love “Rock Island Line”. Also I found Lonnie Johnson several years ago on a personal quest, after a local DJ played this and others (WICN Worcester constantly on and Boston college radio, WUMB, program on roots music) . Especially I love Johnson with Victoria Spivey.

    I started to make a collection (a playlist) of train songs, songs that took the sound of the train or were about working the line. Somehow this delighted me. But too this brings the feeling of slavery and the working man, history told in pure spirit form.

    I had never heard of Billy Bragg until now. But that is true of much about listening here. This is a wonderful hour pushing appreciation of the past and thoughts of a possibly brighter time ahead from all of this chaos.It’s forward in a good sense but incremental.. maybe too incremental for us to last, alas.

    1984, it is.

    This and the three Thoreau programs are definitely worth an extra donation! Maybe your best work…grateful!