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On Sixty Years of Rock & Rebellion
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.
singer-songwriter and author of Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World