Billy Bragg: a lover — and a fighter — sings

Billy Bragg
Billy BraggMark Zaleski/AP/FR170793 AP via AP

For his latest shows in America, the British folk-punk songwriter Billy Bragg is trying out a new format. Rather than barnstorming across the country one gig at a time, he’s settling in to select venues for three-night residencies. He’ll play a career overview the first evening, followed by sets drawn from specific phases of his discography the other two nights.

For the first time on tour, he says, he’ll be able to wake up in the same bed four mornings in a row. He’ll also have a bit of time to explore the cities he’s visiting. In mid-September he was in Washington, D.C., where he planned to see the National Museum of African American History & Culture. He also hoped to poke around in a few bookstores, in search of a reliable history of the War of 1812.


“Everyone knows the British burned the White House down,” he said then, “but nobody knows why.”

It’s Bragg’s self-imposed duty to ask why. He’s been an activist from the earliest days of his career, when he recorded raw, mostly unaccompanied songs on electric guitar, in a voice thick with a working-class London accent. He sang about labor unions and economic inequality. Even when he sang about young love, the songs sounded like punk broadsides.

As he matured, Bragg worked with Nora Guthrie to record unfinished songs by her late father, Woody, and his recent work has veered toward string-band Americana. He’s also become an author, publishing a definitive history of skiffle, the do-it-yourself 1950s British music craze that spawned the Beatles, and, just last month, “The Three Dimensions of Freedom,” a pocket-size, 100-page “pamphlet” on his favorite subject, personal liberty and the responsibilities of citizenship. Bragg will discuss the ideas in that book with Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein on Tuesday at the Cambridge Public Library; he plays Thursday through Saturday at the Sinclair.


Like Guthrie and Joe Strummer before him, Bragg is a hardcore lefty. He has recorded “The Internationale” and founded Jail Guitar Doors, which brings musical instruments to prison inmates. The first thing that appears on his website is not his tour dates or news of his latest release (a compilation of live appearances at the BBC), but a statement about the meaning of “progressive.”

Yet it never fails, he says: Whenever he performs in D.C., a few fans will approach him after the show and furtively reveal that they’re “special operatives” — law enforcement or intelligence agents who don’t necessarily agree with his politics but love his music.

“And I’ll say, ‘That’s totally cool, man.’ If ‘Tank Park Salute’ ” — a gorgeous song about his memories of his late father — “makes you cry, then you’re a part of it. Come aboard. I’m reaching out to you.

“Being political is only part of what I do,” he says. “If you think I’m just a political songwriter, you don’t understand me at all.” That, he notes, is why he chose the name of his song “A Lover Sings” — not “There Is Power in a Union” — as the title of his book of lyrics.

Still, he has honed his debate skills to the point that he’s become an influential voice in British politics. Early on, he campaigned on behalf of striking mine workers and helped form a collective of anti-Thatcher artists. More recently, he delivered a speech at the Bank of England on the subject of accountability as the antidote to authoritarianism. That’s the basic premise behind his “Three Freedoms” book.


“The idea that the free market has all the answers — I always saw that as a way for politicians to avoid being accountable for their actions,” he says.

The concept for his current tour came to Bragg a couple of years ago, after an impromptu performance in Adelaide, Australia. On a “wet, mungy” night, on the eve of a national holiday, he faced a crowded house “in a very volatile mood.” Hoping to win them over, he decided to play the whole of his second album, “Brewing Up With Billy Bragg.” The crowd knew every word, and they sang along with gusto.

“They were shouting the lyrics,” he recalls. “If I stumbled, they would have the lyric. At one point I said, ‘I’m not sure if I’m indulging you or you’re indulging me.’ It was incredible.”

At 61, he’s still an unpolished guitar player, he says, partial to a signature green Burns Steer semi-hollow electric. With more than a little self-deprecation, he refers to his style as “chop and clang.”

When his son, Jack, took up the guitar in his teen years, he was disappointed to learn that his father couldn’t play the solo on the Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet.”

“Fundamentally, I’m a rhythm guitar player,” Bragg says. “When I was in a little punk band, you would only hear what I was doing if I stopped doing it. I’m still that guy. I’m not Eric Clapton. I’m Johnny Ramone, ya know?” Jack, now in his mid-20s, has become a much better guitarist than his old man, as Bragg is pleased to report.


Several years ago Bragg welcomed Anais Mitchell as an opening act. The Vermont native, who recently brought her community theater musical “Hadestown” all the way to Broadway, was performing a song from that play called “Why We Build the Wall.” Bragg asked if he could sing it.

By the time he recorded it for a recent EP (“Bridges Not Walls”), the song had grown from a set piece in Mitchell’s show into an all-purpose protest song in the era of Brexit and border walls. When “Hadestown” opened at the National Theatre in London in late 2018, Bragg reminded Mitchell that songs often take on lives of their own: “Once you release it into the world, you don’t own it anymore. It belongs to the people who hear it.”

It’s one more example of Bragg’s lifelong belief in the power of song. “Chimes for the times,” he says. “Chimes for the goddamn times.”

Billy Bragg

At Cambridge Public Library, Oct. 1 at 6:30 p.m. Free. At the Sinclair, Cambridge, Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. (Oct. 4 and Oct. 5 shows sold out). Tickets start at $49.50, www.sinclaircambridge.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.