The Common Good
May-June 1997

Of Cribs and Capitalists

by Anne Wayne | May-June 1997

Billy Bragg's music adapts to life's changes.

Sojourners’ intern house was burgled twice in 10 days last year. I lost one of my favorite possessions—a Billy Bragg top with the insignia "Sea, Sun, Socialism" and, on the back, a depiction of Lenin on a surfboard with the caption "even socialists surf." The burglary was a hard lesson in detachment, which prompted us to look at the underlying causes of the violence and crime in our neighborhood. Here, "the third world is just around the corner," as Bragg sang in his 1988 hit "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward."

In 1996, Bragg released his latest album, William Bloke. True to his self-given designation of "pun rocker," the title refers to William Blake, one of Bragg’s favored poets. Bragg has always used poetry and history for inspiration, reclaiming the traditional canon for the ordinary bloke. Often this invites controversy. When Bragg recorded "Blake’s Jerusalem," he revealed: "My belief that Jerusalem is a left wing anthem has got me into arguments with public schoolboys at Eton and Trotskyist newspaper sellers in Trafalgar Square." Nevertheless he remains convinced that Blake was a radical and a visionary worthy of an album title.

It’s been a five-year pregnant pause between releases for Bragg. He spent the intervening years co-parenting his 3-year-old son, Jack, and living in ordinary England. Before I had a chance to listen to the album, I was disappointed to hear that Bragg had gone soft with new fatherhood. I like my Bragg loud and politically "in your face," so I was extremely relieved to find, when I listened to William Bloke, that the crooner of such classics as "Help Save the Youth of America" is in fighting form.

The new album returns to Bragg’s anti-hype style. William Bloke is less glitzy than his last release, Don’t Try This at Home. Stripped-back arrangements and a quieter, more reflective feel mirror the changing pattern of Bragg’s life.

Fatherhood and domestic bliss are constant referents in this recording. "I used to want to plant bombs at the last night of the Proms/But now you’ll find me with the baby, in the bathroom," he notes in "Brickbat." Bragg uses these familial concerns as a lens through which to view the difficult questions of inequality and oppression that he’s always grappled with. This more nuanced picture of life and political involvement than earlier Bragg is the gift of the album.

THE OPENING CUT, "From Red to Blue," mourns Bragg’s companions who have transferred their allegiance from red to blue (the traditional color of the conservatives). But Bragg is no apologist for the Left. Once a cheerleader for the British Labour Party, he gave up his membership when Labour supported the Gulf War. Bragg is sick of politicians whose "excuses are so lame if they were horses they’d be shot," he explains in the ska-beat "Goalhanger," which closes the set.

In place of Labour Party politics, "Upfield," the upbeat second song, espouses "a socialism of the heart." During the Washington, D.C. concert of his U.S. tour (which opened with a benefit gig for the striking Detroit Free Press workers), Bragg explained: "Socialism was born because capitalism can’t bridge the gap between rich and poor. The language of socialism is outdated because it’s always referenced to the USSR. We need to rejuvenate the Left untainted by totalitarianism, and rooted in compassion." Bragg cites the environmental movement and the work of progressive churches as examples of "socialism of the heart."

Bragg has a lot in common with environmental activists these days. In "From Red to Blue," he sings, "Sometimes I think to myself/Should I vote red for my class or green for our children." It’s a very real question for Bragg. "Now [I’m] pushing the baby along in the street and the car exhausts are the same height as his face!...the kids in London have got asthma inhalers now, cos of the pollution," he exclaims in a 1996 New Musical Express interview.

The example offered by British eco-warriors prompted Billy to put Rudyard Kipling’s poem "A Pict Song" to music. The environmental movement, paralleling the picts, could also say of itself, "For we are the little folk.../leave us alone/and you’ll see/How we can bring down the state."

"King James Version," a slow-paced lament on the global shift to the Right, opens, "He was trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in," revealing Bragg hasn’t lost his ability to write witty lines that attend to detail. Nor has he lost his dab hand at beautiful, bittersweet love songs. Bragg uses that skill to good effect in the "14th of February," "Brickbat," and "The Space Race is Over"—a song inspired by his son’s fascination with the moon. Bragg explains that these are lullabies, part of the duties of parenthood; anti-capitalist lullabies of course!

William Bloke is an optimistic album that emphasizes the importance of personal relationships. While Billy honestly faces the difficulties of social change work, he offers us hope. The final lines of "King James Version" sum up his vision: "Looks like a drift to the Right/For the world we were born in/But the horizon is bright/yonder comes the morning."

William Bloke. By Billy Bragg. Elektra, 1996.

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