Category Archives: Billy Bragg

English Originals Folk Festival 25-27 April 2008

For many years now St George’s Day has been at best ignored and at worst, an embarrassment. This may be because of a national identity crisis and a fear that encouraging nationalistic events we might be inciting intolerance and racism.

Yet, our neighbouring countries don’t have such a complex and their respective Saint’s days are a reason for national pride and in Ireland’s case, a reason for global consumption of Guinness and worldwide festivities.

However, spurred on by our neighbours’ dialogue of devolvement we’ve been forced to assess our own aspects of national identity. No man spearheads this movement better than the Bard Of Barking, Billy Bragg. With albums like England, Half English and a biography called The Progressive Patriot, Bragg has attempted to wrangle national identity back from the right wing, concentrating on inclusion rather than exclusion.

Bragg kicks off this three day event (which I’d like to think would be longer if the national holiday got pushed through), talking to The Stirrer’s Adrian Goldberg. Here Bragg pulled out the main points I’ve just breezed over in my introduction, expressing his strong beliefs and exemplifying how it fits in with his own identity.

The talk created a strong catalyst for this weekend’s experiment; throwing down a manifesto that asked us to respect our traditions but also question them and take them forwards. The weekend’s events were further justified by being based in Birmingham’s Town Hall. Dormant for around ten years, it was once a great place to hear grand and glorious speeches. Now with a refurb to boot, Birmingham Council have managed to retain the glorious fixtures but renovate the space. The real master stroke was thinking how the venue should be used to make it vibrant and relevant to a modern audience.
Aptly, the so called ‘Folk renaissance man’ Chris Wood was first up with a deep and sonorous voice which proved the acoustic refinement of the venue. Wood effortlessly captivates the audience with songs that are historic in tone with a classic rich-folky voice; and sings strikingly modern lyrics. The Town Hall of my childhood sounded cavernous but through some clever shielding they’ve managed to make it sound close and warm.

Next came the first real surprise of the weekend. Kitty, Daisy & Lewis are teenage siblings who pound out an extremely infectious brand of rockabilly and bluegrass. Bragg was good enough to point out this seeming contradiction in the talk he delivered earlier. Though they are playing quintessentially American rooted music they are British born and their roots based grasp on the genre was an energy stuffed delight. Not only was respect paid to the tradition but it was given raw attitude; encompassing skiffle, dance hall, ska and punk through their songs.

Billy Bragg points out early into his set he should get Marmite as a sponsor as “You either love me or hate me.” Regardless of how you feel about the particularly British by-product of the brewing industry, you can guarantee that everyone who had chosen to spend their Friday night in a town hall weren’t regretting it.

Storming on to ‘World Turned Upside Down’ a traditional tail of one of the first civil uprisings, he was so fired up he broke a guitar string straight off. From then onwards it was a heavy rotation between his two electrics and one acoustic through a smashing set which mixed new with old. The great thing about Billy is that he has a legacy of great songs with new tracks never to be ashamed of. Actually, the paired down live versions with Mr. Bragg either pranging about or serenading have a more lasting appeal than the pop sheen of his new album, Mr. Love And Justice. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great album, just live it becomes a firebrand. You might not necessarily agree with everything he preaches but it’s very difficult to not come away from the evening without his rants ringing in your ears. And with three encores and two standing ovations, plainly the audience didn’t want to leave.
Saturday evening was devoted to Rising Folk. An evening of nu-folk gets off to a rocky start in some part due to Sharron Krauss failing to live up to her title of “Folk’s wild child” and partly to do with the elderly usher refusing to let us in until “a suitable break in the performance.” Which seemed to last forever. When we did get in, the overall impression was of a deep and dark depression that two pints of London Pride (’London price more like’) meant it wasn’t my zone. Despite the evening supposedly have a young fresh faced appeal, I felt like I was being gnarled at by curmudgeons.

A kazillion times better were Tunng. The East London group with a lovely Birmingham connection via Static Caravan recordings, were an absolute pleasure to watch. Sam Genders wonderfully full lyrics tempered by Becky Jacobs sweet asides are all brought together sonically with the aid of electronic gizmos and a string of seashells by the bearded rest. They manage to create something delicate and thoroughly modern. Genders quips about half way through that they’re feeling a bit over-whelmed having just “played small sweaty gigs in Germany.” The sound was given true majesty by these wonderful surroundings.

Unfortunately Tunng made Seth Lakeman pale into insignificance by comparison. Even with a strong session band to beef him up he managed to lose his main strength; his fiddle. Playing it sparsely and swapping between that and a cappo’d acoustic guitar made you wish that he’d employ someone to play it. “Kitty Jay” remains the strongest track in his set.

Saturday night ends with our national dish, curry and Sunday begins in the afternoon with a showing of the BBC’s excellent Folk Britannia at the Symphony Hall. To someone like me who only really came to this Folk thing through singer songwriters like Billy Bragg and Kirsty MacColl, later via Beth Orton and folktronica, it’s a great four part series to put everything in its right place.

The main event in the evening helped even further by actually presenting us with the physical manifestation of some of those movers and shakers. Collected together under the title Daughters Of Albion, the all female vocalists united the talents of stalwarts June Tabor and Norma Waterson with Kathryn Williams, Bishi, Lisa Knapp and Lou Rhodes. Backed ably by Martin Carthy, Tim Van Eyken and pulled together by composer Kate St John. One by one they were introduced by the delightfully shambolic Williams. June Tabor was the most reserved but her music inspires reverence whilst Norma Waterson was more like a surrogate folk mother and more playful with it. Lou Rhodes’ voice well known for its bleating drama on Lamb records is mellowed but more empowered under this ensemble set up. Bishi picked up a similarly post-dance tip with her intricate sitar playing and thoughtful lyrics. Lisa Knapp stole the first half by performing a version of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work with the other ladies on back vocals. Truly sublime. Most notable of the second half was Lou Rhodes’ cover of PJ
Harvey’s Down By The Water.

It occurred to me listening to these covers that maybe I was born to listen to folk, I just haven’t really realised it because I didn’t think it belonged to me. Maybe the ultimate lesson of the weekend is that I learnt a bit more about where I’ve come from and where I’m going.


Keep Flying The Flag (July 2002)

Whilst I was editor of whatsonuk part of my remit was to get more political content (but presented in a groovy ‘ yoof’ manner.) It was always quite a struggle to commission good writers that communicated with our audience.

 

 The following I felt was one of my most successful. This was ghost written by myself following an interview with Billy Bragg around the time of his Take Down The Union Jack era. Most pleasing to my ‘pseudo-socialist-except-when-it-comes-to-getting-paid’ boss was that he refused to take any payment for it.

 

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Can patriotism be a good thing? Billy Bragg points out the importance of national identity and to stop fascists stealing it.

 

 

At the moment I like to bitch about Pop Idol as much as the monarchy. One of the reasons I released the record ‘Take Down The Union Jack’ around the time of the Jubilee was because it would have been great to wipe the cheesy smile off (the bastard son of Morrissey) Will Young’s face!

 

What I think Pop Idol represents is the way in which we’ve turned the charts into a predictable procession of bands and artists who have got nothing more to say “I’m great and you’re shit,” and “Do you like my socks,” I’m tired of that. I think music has the potential to say so much more. Apart from the mischievous desire to kick the chinny wonder and the Queen into touch by beating them at their own game, there was a hidden message.

 

I’ve been interested in identity politics for quite some time now and this song and the last album in particular was an attempt to tackle this issue. For a while the left wing has correctly believed in multiculturalism and internationalism and has suitably promoted them. However, the promotion of this has left a vacuum where national identity is. This has made it simple for the racists and bigots and football hooligans to take all these symbols and make them into symbols of oppression.

 

Now, the Union Jack is a symbol that is all about looking back. Everyone you see waving a Union Jack are looking back to the past. The jubilee brigade are looking back to 1952, the metric martyrs are looking back to the imperial measures, Europhobes are looking back to 1940, BNP are looking back to, well… the Stone Age. Even the benign uses of the Union Jack by Mods, Johnny Rotten, Noel Gallagher and other Britpop ‘heroes’ are all retro.

 

I think particularly at the moment whilst we’re in sporting moods (post World Cup) we have an opportunity to grasp something else rather than the former ‘glories.’ Something that is more tangible. My candidate for this is rather contentious. It’s the flag of St George, a flag that carries many of the connotations of which I already mentioned. Britain itself is somewhat obsessed with its Empire, with Monarchy, with being ‘Great’ in a Victorian sense. But England, when we look at manifestations of it almost always turns up multicultural.

 

They’re all kind of random things, for instance our football team is a visual display of our diverse people, The cricket team is captained by a guy called Nasser Hussain, from Essex! English identity is a diverse identity, we have nothing to fear from finding our own identity again, and talking about this issue. It’s basically what we see every day on the streets, in the cities, out in the villages, its all part of it and it’s our great diversity, this is our strength. This is my idea of Englishness.

 

Everyone who reads this will have their own idea of what Englishness is and that’s because it’s so damn diverse! If we bring our ideas together we may find something that we all feel strongly about, that we all have in common. Englishness, if it’s anything, is a common sense of belonging based on the space we all occupy together. A space that happens to be called England.

 

Multiculturalism and Englishness are not opposites, you can’t have one without the other. Most importantly, the reason why we need Englishness is the BNP want it and we have to stop them and their evil ideas spreading across Europe. By grasping these ideas that are central to our identity we can build a looser sense of who we are on our own terms.

 

Britishness is shot, and it’s sailing off into the past, but Englishness is real an it’s on our streets, here to celebrate and talk about. I think History is very important, the BNP have their History and we have ours. That’s why we can’t just begin with a new flag and a new idea. Englishness has a past and a present and a future and just chopping off the past doesn’t guarantee our future.

 

If you can ever be bothered, take a look at the BNP website, have a look at their ‘History’ it’s all white supremacy bullshit based on an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Now, your Angles and your Saxons were from Nordic country and they were the first economic migrants to this country. Out of the whole phrase Anglo-Saxon, the only thing that comes from England is the hyphen! That hyphen is important because it’s our traditional diversity.

 

Our strength is that people have came and brought things to us, which we’ve co-opted and made our own. The people from the Indian sub-continent brought their food, which is now our most popular food, the people from the Caribbean brought their dress sense which inspired us. How would The Beatles sounded if they’d only ever listened to ‘pure English’ music, they used Black Americans to inspire them to make the most English music ever.

 

That’s how it works, it works by taking in many influences to keep your culture strong, celebrating that diverse identity and taking that diversity forwards, that’s what I feel passionately we need to do, compare and learn.

 

We’ve got to get a place where, when we see the flag of St George we don’t immediately think ‘racist.’ People don’t think that when they see the flag of Scotland or Wales, it’s  a real problem that we have here in England. It’s our problem – the BNP are in England.

 

So keep the flag flying people, just understand its true meaning.