Billy Bragg on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Brexit, and the Unifying Power of Music

On a Fast Train

Nov 07, 2016 Web Exclusive Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share


On July 11th, Billy Bragg took advantage of a brief break in the London rain to take his dog for a walk. By the time he got back home that afternoon, Great Britain had a new prime minister. That's how suddenly change happened in the days following the country's vote to leave the European Union, and, as arguably Britain's greatest protest singer, Bragg suddenly found himself in the spotlight. Taking the stage at Glastonbury the night of the Brexit result, he was greeted by an audience that was waiting for him to offer them an outlet for their collective anxiety. In response, Bragg met them where they were, combing his catalog and picking the songs that would best fit the charged mood. As always, his goal was to create a sense of hope and provide a moment of solidarity for people who needed it most.

"We were all feeling like all of sudden we're living in a country where we don't belong," Bragg recalls. "My goal that night was to bring everybody together and make them feel like they weren't alone, to allow them to sing those songs and respond positively to the ideas that I was throwing out, so they could look around in the tent and say, 'Thank God I'm not the only person who gives a fuck about this.' That's the real power of music, not to change the world but to remind you that you are not alone and perhaps inspire you to go out and try to change the world."

For over 30 years, that has been Bragg's mission as an artist, one that continues on his latest release. A collaboration with singer-songwriter Joe Henry entitled Shine a Light: Field Recordings from The Great American Railroad, the album explores the American character through a set of folk songs that was recorded during a 2,800-mile Chicago-to-Los Angeles trip the duo took by train. In the process, Bragg saw a different country, the forgotten America whose fading memory nonetheless remains in our shared cultural DNA. Here, Bragg talks about the Brexit vote, the American presidential election, and how the old songs on his new album have never been more relevant.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Do you see any connection between the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States?

Billy Bragg: I think there's similarities in there, in that there's a lot of evidence to suggest the Brexit vote is a cry of anguish from people who feel they've not benefitted from the rise of globalization. They live in places where traditional industries have been gutted and such jobs as there are are quite low-paid, low skilled, casual work on contracts that don't offer much protection. They've seen the benefits go to a narrow group, the top of society, mostly London and the southeast. And our electoral system, passed on a system called first past the post, means that if you don't vote for the winning candidate your votes will go in the bin. So they feel voiceless, and the referendum, where everybody's voice counts the same, gave them a voice. And they decided to let everybody know how they feel. So, in the way that Trump has become a lightning rod for those types of people, the European referendum was also a lightning rod for that kind of sentiment.

Were you surprised by that outcome?

Yeah, I think most of us thought we'd scrape by. Even the leader of UKIPthe political party that was founded to leave the European Unionthe night of the referendum before I went to bed I heard him on the radio saying, "We've lost it." So to wake up the next morning to hear the prime minister resigning was a bit of a surprise, really.

I think a lot of young people are very surprised by it, because having grown up being in the European Union for the last 40 years, for anyone under the age of 30, really, the European Union has always been there. So they took that for granted and probably didn't think the country would be daft enough to vote to leave. So maybe some of them didn't register to vote, thinking it wouldn't affect them, and woke up on the day after the referendum in a state of panic. I do have some sympathy for them, because when I first had the opportunity to vote, I didn't bother because I didn't think politic had anything to do with me. That was 1979, and Margaret Thatcher got elected. I've always thought that was my fault. If only I'd gotten out and voted... [Laughs] But the point is that it woke me up. Thatcher's election woke me up to the realization that politics does affect my life, and the people that have taken decisions that I'm not being consulted in. And I think many young people will feel that way now. They'll finally feel the generation gap becoming visible to them in a way that it hasn't been ever since they started listening to their parents' iTunes. The generation gap has been kind of dissolving, hasn't it? Well, the Brexit result has brought the generation gap clearly into focus in this country. The number of people who voted "leave" tended to be over 50, and the people who voted "remain" were under 50.

How do you account for that difference?

I think it's a mixture of aspiration, optimism, [and] possibility. [If] you're looking forward and you have your life ahead of you, you think, "Well, one day I might want to go and visit these places [in Europe]. I might want to go work there." Membership in the European Union gives us the right to work anywhere in the Union. Whereas if you're older and life hasn't delivered the things you hoped it would do, and you don't feel you have any prospect of change anymore, you feel left behind in some ways. Then you're looking for someone to blame for those problems. And an unfortunate subtext for some people [supporting] the referendum was that one of the rules of the European Union is the free movement of labor, of people, which means that people from other European countries can come live and work in the U.K. And it has led to a rise in particularly Eastern European immigrants into the U.K., because one, our economy is booming, and two, they want to learn to speak English, so they want to come where you are. So, in that sense, for young Eastern Europeans, Great Britain is quite an attractive place on a number of levels. And so what people were thinking about when they went into the ballot wasn't necessarily the European Union; it was aspects of the way the country changed. And obviously the longer you've lived somewhere the more changes you'll have seen. So if you feel the changes have been negative and that those changes appear to have been driven by a European Union that you don't feel listens to your viewswhich isn't true because we all get to vote for the European Parliamentbut if you're looking for a way of externalizing problems, then the European Union and the immigrants that have come here as a result of it, is a way of copping out of the reality that many of the problems that we face as citizens of the U.K. have to do with domestic issues and choices that we've made and governments that we've elected and the things that they did.

What do you expect to be the ultimate outcome of the Brexit vote?

That's a difficult thing to say at the moment. There are a number of options. There's a kind of halfway house which is called the European Economic Area, where we have access to the single market and free movement, but we don't get a say in the way things are done. Or there's complete and utter rejection of any connection, without which will leave us outside the single market, which will not be good for our economy and not good for people who want to go work in Europe. Or [there could be] some other treaty that we can make with the European Union, but at the moment the outcome has shattered the sort of political consensus [with] the main two political parties. The conservatives have lost a leader and a prime minister, and the labor party leader has been challenged. So we bought this car Brexit, but at the moment no one is willing to get in and drive it, and definitely no one is willing to say what direction we should drive it in. So things are up in the air, to be completely honest to you. Pick up a newspaper that was printed the night before and read it in the morning. Then in the afternoon, it's already out of date.

These are very strange times. So, yeah, it's hard to say what's going to happen! [Laughs] You might as well ask me who's going to win the next World Cup. One thing you can say is that it has energized a lot of people to think about politics, particularly younger people. My son, who grew up in a political household, has always been interested in world events, but he has never been interested in politics. He's 22 now and lives in Brighton, and we talk every other day now about politics on the phone. He rings me up, and we talk about what's happening. I was at Glastonbury when it happened, and there were a lot of young people talking about it when I was out to buy coffee or some food or something; people were talking in their queues about it. And rightly sowhatever happens next is on their generation. They have to step up now and tell us what they think and where they want to go, because it's clear that other people are making decisions on their behalf, and those other people are a lot older and might not have their best interests at heart.

Not everyone who is old voted to leaveit's not that clear. But in broad terms, the older you get the more likely you were to vote to leave the European Union. So it's not down to the 18 to 24-year-olds to start to articulate where they want to go and what they want to do. Interestingly, since the result of the election, membership of the Labor Party has increased by 200,000 members, and that's at a time when we have a leader, Jeffrey Corbin, who is like Bernie Sanders. He's from outside the party, he's an older guy, he's a self-avowed left-winger. He's not very popular with the leadership of the party. So there are some similarities with what's going on both in America and with what's happening here. It's not just in the U.K.it's happening right across Europe.

And my sense of what's happening is that people are no longer satisfied with what you might call managerial politics: politics that are aimed at creating growth in the economy that will allegedly benefit everybody. But clearly that hasn't happened. So instead people are looking for politics that is transformative, that will change society in some way to make things better for everybody. The unfortunate aspect of that is that Donald Trump is offering to transform society. Marine Le Pen in France, the leader of the far right National Front, is offering to transform society. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, has transformed society. He has gotten us out of the European Union. It's often dismissed as populism, but I don't think that's a fair term anymore. It's a 20th century term like "socialism" that doesn't really fit with what's going on anymore. I think transformative politics is what people are increasingly looking for, and for those of us on the left it's our duty to make sure that this transformation is a positive transformation and not a negative one. And make no mistake about it, if we had a land border with Europe that was a vote to build a wall on that border. Instead of building walls as Trump wants and UKIP wants, we have to be talking about building homes and schools and a healthcare system that's free for everybody at point of use. We have to be making that case to transform society that way.

What do you think of Hillary Clinton?

I think Hillary Clinton is a classic managerialist. Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, David Cameron"It's the economy, stupid." That's their only slogan. That's all they have to fall back on. There's nothing in there about what kind of society they'd like to see. There are no principles. The market has no principles. They're relying on the market to be the final arbiter of everything. That's led us to where we are now, where a demagogue like Donald Trump can make sense to people because they feel their backs are so much against the wall, where people feel so let down that they lash out, and now we've left the most successful peacetime economic union that was ever created. Because people are angry, and that anger has not been addressed. Although within that anger there's a lot of racism and sexism and xenophobia, underneath it all there are some legitimate arguments about how resources are distributed in society. And the only way we're going to address those negatives is to get to grips with how resources are fairly distributed. But we need to do that in a 21st century way, and the impetus needs to come from a younger generation instead of a load of Clash fans like me.

Has this election season shown you anything about the character of America?

I don't think I'd ever have expected someone who describes himself as a democratic socialist to do so well, so that has been encouraging. I would put that alongside the ability to elect the first black president as some of the positive changes I've seen in America since I first started coming to your country in 1984. But there's always been that undercurrent of nativist anger; that thread of the old Know Nothing Party never really went away in America. We have it in England, too, we just call it something else. That has always been there. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has managed to tap into that, but I think the Republican Party only has themselves to blame for encouraging those kinds of attitudes and not speaking out when Fox News said the most ridiculous things.

A lot of the problems we had in the referendum is that we seem to be in this time of post-truth politics, where facts are only regarded as opinions and truth is your particular perspective. I think that's something we've seen that throughout the Trump campaign. It's been impossible for the media to lay a finger on him, really, partly because he's so good for ratings. It's a terrible thing to say, but he's clickbait. If you're trying to generate page views or sell copies, writing about the most outrageous things he says is going to generate a bigger turnover in a time when the media pie is being fragmented. He, in some ways, is kind of surfing a wave of the kind of interest that a really bad automobile accident gets. People slow down to look at it and take photos. It's car crash reporting, isn't it? It's in the U.K., as well. This was a phenomenon during the Brexit campaign, as well.

The vast majority of indie rock musicians supported Bernie Sanders during the primaries. Far fewer seemed to support Clinton, and almost no one supports Trump. Why do you suppose that is?

We're the people who are trying to walk it like Woody [Guthrie] walked it. We're the people who like to think of ourselves as rebels. We're the people who like to think that if we can't change society we can act as a signpost. And do you want those signposts to point to Wall Street and globalization and everything else? NAFTA? Or do you want it to point to "This Land is Your Land?" The reason we do this is because we want to try and be part of a movement to make a better society. In many ways, I would say it's kind of an effect from the 20th century when music was the only social medium that young people had. In the 20th century everything we wanted to say had to go through music, because that was the only platform available. When I was 19 and wanted to express my anger about the world, I had to learn to play the guitar, write songs, and do gigs. No one was asking my opinion. Obviously, if you're 19 now you can write a blog, set up a Twitter storm or make a bloody film on your phone. So music no longer has that vanguard role in the discourse of young people, but the tradition of using music to do that, that still flies because there are moments where music can bring people together that not much else can.

The night of the referendum result I had a gig at Glastonbury at a tent that held about 1200 people. I think we were all trying to make sense of what was happening in real time, me and the audience. So I pitched songs that I thought would allow me to throw out ideas about what happened, and the audience were so hungry for that that when I went on stage at the beginning of the set they made the same noise they usually make when I go off stage. I realized that was going to be one of those gigs where I wasn't going to be driving it as much as riding it. The emotions were so high I just was putting out ideas and singing particular songs. I think this is the one thing that music can do that few over media can, and that is everybody in that tent at Glastonbury, broadly speaking, was a "remain" person. So we're all feeling like all of sudden we're living in a country where we don't belong. My goal that night was to bring everybody together and make them feel like they weren't alone, to allow them to sing those songs and respond positively to the ideas that I was throwing out, so they could look around in the tent and say, "Thank God I'm not the only person who gives a fuck about this" and go away thinking, "Okay, it's not just me."

In fact, that communion, you can't get that online. You can't get that sense of solidarity. And it's not just political; it's an emotional solidarity, too. If you've got a song that you love, and you go to the gig, and the person who wrote that song sings it, and everybody in the room sings so you have two to three thousand people singing the song, whatever emotions you've attached to that song are immediately validated by the crowd. That's the real power of music, not to change the world but to remind you that you are not alone and perhaps inspire you to go out and try to change the world.

Do you think dark times make better art?

Well, you can't make political music in a vacuum. Martin Luther King didn't march on Selma because Bob Dylan wrote "The Times They Are A-Changin'." It was the other way around and it always has been. What songs can do is take something like Dr. King's words or actions to build solidarity, to allow those people to feel like they are a part of a movement. There were Black Lives Matter demonstrations in London this weekend, and there will be songs that connect with that that people record that will be played in those places that make people feel empathy towards the victims and the families of young black men who have been murdered by cops. Music can do that. It can't stop the situation, but it can bring people together to express their solidarity.

There are very few things remaining that have kind of power. It seems we're becoming a more divided society, to the extent that we disappear into our devices. Music is one of the few things that can provide an experience that pulls us into the here and now.

It has the potential to do that. But it doesn't have the weight that it used to have in society, when it was the lingua franca of young people around the world. When you could learn about things that were happening in another country through hearing musicthat kind of thing. The Internet has superseded music, but it's still capable of delivering that punch. Certainly in Europe, more people are going to gigs now than there were 20 years ago, because they're clearly getting something at gigsthe communion that they get is something they can't get anywhere else.

Music is almost worthless. It's good for nothing. So it might be more than gigs that do these things we talk about. Music is the hook, but it's actually coming together at a gig and seeing everyone cheering the same idea or same notion, standing up for the same ideals that we express from the stage. It's that affirmative experience that sends you away. You might be working in a place where there's a lot of casual racism or sexism. You might be at college, and you're isolated there and you go to a gig, and you're suddenly among people who support the views that you have and support you. That's why I don't believe it when people dismiss it as preaching to the converted. It's not that at all. We're actually recharging our batteries: me from the audience and their response, and the audience from me and my songs and ideas. We're recharging our batteries so we can go back out there and fight the good fight, get our own little space wherever we are. I'll do my bit, and you'll do your bit, and ultimately we hope to bring that to a time when we can bring about real change.

When we get close to that change, the forces of reaction step up and try to stop us the way the Republicans in Congress have acted for the last eight years. That's not democracy. They're not elected there to just block everything and say "no" to everything. They're trying to hold back the modern world. It's the same with Trump and UKIP in the U.K. People aren't going to stop migrating to this country; it's a great place to live. If they're dropping bombs at the end of the street where you live, the worst shit house in the worst shit town in the worst shit corner of England has got to be better for you and your kids than staying on the street where they could be blown to bits going to school or the market. So don't kid yourself that you can just turn your back on the world and wish it all away. It's just progress. Bernie Sanders is progress. Barack Obama is progress. And we will keep marching forward, no matter happens. And if the vehicle is the Democratic Party or the Labour Party, then we will march forward with that. But we won't just vote Democrat. We've got to do more than that.

Is there anything in the current political climate that drew you to the songs on Shine a Light?

Hmm... Well, I think there's a shortsightedness, a short termism, in American politics and in British politics and in the economy, that doesn't really think in the long term, doesn't really think about what is really happening to the climate or the health of the nation. And one thing that America could benefit from would be a little bit more of the infrastructure. And the railways could play a very significant part in getting people around in a way that's a lot better ecologically than flying around or trucking freight. America carries more freight than any other industrialized nation, but it has very poor passenger service. But one of the reasons for that is that everything has to be organized in a state-by-state basis. There's no forward-looking vision. We need people with a forward-looking vision because we've got to change a lot of the ways we do thing. The climate is really changing, and we need to think about that. Getting on the railways in America made me realize how underused technology that is.

Did taking that trip from Chicago from Los Angeles show you anything you hadn't known about America?

Yeah, it did! I don't really like flying, so I've spent a lot of time driving around your country. But I saw more people's backyards on that train, more parts of the old weird America, because the railway goes through places that were important when the track was laid 120, 130 years ago. And the train sort of moseys through it. It doesn't go rushing through it like a thunderbolt. It kind of rolls through the land, and so there is an America I hadn't seen out there. And the people using the train can't afford to fly or for medical reasons can't fly or won't fly because they don't want to show people their IDthere's another America on the trains that is trying to get by. When we were on the Texas Eagle from Chicago to San Antonio, we were the only passenger train on the line that day. And once we got on from San Antonio to Los Angeles, we were the only passenger train for 48 hours. And there are towns on the trips, like Alpine, Texas, which was built because it had a source of fresh water nearby for the trains. It was built only for that reason, because of the railroad. No one would think of getting on the train to leave town. The train pulled in and no one got on and no one got off. So I think the idea of the railroad is not just something that exists in the past; it's something that is in our present and could be quite an important technology for the future as a rapid mass transit system across the United States of America. Where about do you live?

Akron, Ohio.

Yeah, imagine if you could get up to Chicago in an hour on a high-speed train. You go to the train, board it, and shoop! None of that going to the airport and all of that shit. And then you can go to Los Angeles in two hours. It's not as fast as the plane, but you don't have to go to LAX and it takes you right into downtown. But there needs to be a will for that, and unfortunately any positive ideas that are put forth, the opposition party will just stymie them. I think it's a real problem in times when we'll be very soon under a lot of pressure for resources, particularly fresh water, so we need to be thinking hard about that. Very many of the people who are campaigning in favor of leaving the European Union are opposed to the idea of manmade climate change. They are post-fact politicians. It's very disturbing.

Do you think the America that exists in those songs on your new record still exist?

Which America is that?

The America in the songs. When you look at an old Leadbelly or Hank Williams song, does that America still exist? Or has it changed into something unrecognizable?

What does America of 2016 have in common with America of 1866, you mean? Well, George Orwell, he was talking about England, but he commented about this. He said, "What do you have in common with the photograph of that three-year-old on the mantelpiece in your parents' house? Nothing, except that you're the same person." And I think that's the best metaphor that I've ever heard about how a country changes yet intrinsically stays the same. And vast tracks of your country are exactly the same, because nothing has been built there. The line from San Antonio to Los Angeles more or less follows the border for most of the way. There's nothing there; you're going across dessert. But the question is whether any of the things they talked about or thought about resonate, and I think they do. Those songs still resonate. Leadbelly's songs still speak to us. He was picking up on songs that were written long before he was born. Woody Guthrie sang songs like "Gypsy Davy" and "Stewball," and "Stewball" was first written down in my country in the time of Elizabeth the 1st. You can't kill a song. The only thing you can do to a song is stop singing it. As long as you keep singing it, it stays alive, and each generation attaches their own meaning and circumstance to it, so it moves on.

Do you think there's any character lent to American folk music simply because we don't have such a long history as Great Britain?

I think there is, yeah. And it's not because you're young; it's because you've never been a completely homogenous country culturally. Even before the slaves came, there were French, Spanish, Dutch, and English. It wasn't just one culture that grew in one place. It has always been a melting pot, and the most exciting cultures have occurred when two cultures sparked off each other and created something new. Jazz, rock and roll. If you go back and listen to Woody and Leadbellyand to some extent it's true of Jimmie Rodgers, as wellthey're not really singing blues or folk or country. They're singing everything. They were making music before there were record stores in which there were categories where you could find records. Leadbelly is not really a blues singer. He sings a lot of blues, but he sings gospel, as well, and old English folk songs. He sings all sorts of stuff. He sings whatever is popular. He finds songs and completely rewrites the words for himself like "Rock Island Line." He makes it his own. He takes a song that's 100 years old and it sounds like he wrote it last week. He just stuck a few bits that he knew from the folk tradition and made it new again. I think it's that ability to not feel like you're inheriting your culture but that you're making itthat's what I think makes American culture different to our culture. Ours is inherited very often. You are creating yours anew with every wave of immigration. I think that's what given you such a great cultural dynamism.

Is that why older people in the U.K. felt threatened enough to vote for Brexit, just seeing their country change through immigration?

Yeah, I think the speed of change has made people think about this issue. It certainly seems to be that since we've come to the Internet the speed of change has been enhanced, only in the sense that people who have migrated to a country can now telephone their family at home and send them pictures of where they are and tell them exactly where they are and let people know what's going on. There's a feeling that that change has no democratic control over it. I think that certainly seemed to be behind some of the things the people who voted "leave," particularly working class people. The things they were talking about could have been paraphrased in that way. Globalization does that. Decisions are being made... where? The market has no loyalty. The market has no accountability. The market is an algorithm, really. So for hundreds of years people struggled to get control of the world through democracy. And now globalization has superseded that. If anyone complains, someone shrugs and says, "It's the economy, stupid?" Why have my wages been flat-lining for 30 years? It's the economy. It has nothing to do with me. Why have all of our jobs moved overseas? It's the economy. As Springsteen says in "The River," "Lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy." So that sense of having no power over things that are changing, I think that very much played into the Brexit vote. And now what's happened is that every single one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign have left of their own accord or have resigned. And those people who were talking about taking back control now have a new prime minister that none of us have voted for. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. It's enough to make you cynical. [Laughs]

So when you think about the future, do you have more fear or hope?

Oh, I never feel fear of the future. I don't think it's good to feel fear. I have a son that's 22. I know there's problems ahead, but in the 20th century we worked for a more equal society, and broadly speaking, though there are huge amounts of inequality and racism and sexism, things are much better than they were. I think what we know is that instead of talking about socialism we should be talking about accountability. Someone needs to be held accountable for the number of young black men who are being killed by police in the United States. Someone needs to be accountable for the fact that we've left the European Union. Who is going to be held accountable for that, because they've all fled the field? Where is the accountability? Who's accountable for the fact that these jobs have moved overseas? Who's accountable for that? I think greater accountability is going to become the buzzword in the 21st century, and that's what's going to save us from oblivion. Because, ultimately, we're all going to have to take account from the state of the environment. I don't think that's a bad thing.

www.billybragg.co.uk

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