For more than 30 years Billy Bragg has campaigned through songs and activism for a fairer society. It was The Clash that lit a fire under him and inspired the three-chords-and-the-truth rawness of his early work, but with his songs of class and power, love and solidarity, Bragg truly belongs to the folk tradition. We spoke to him ahead of his appearance at Lead Belly Fest, the legendary musician whom Bragg calls ‘the greatest American folk singer that ever lived’.
1. He loves Lead Belly.
‘He played such an important role in shaping popular music. I can’t think of anyone else whose repertoire spans so many different genres – blues, gospel, kids’ stuff. Plus he had an incredible life.’
2. He rips songs from the headlines.
‘Lead Belly would read the newspaper and write about what he saw. After hearing about the phone hacking scandal, I wrote “Never Buy The Sun” on the way to a gig and played it that night. The feeling in the room was visceral. They’re not very fashionable any more but topical songs are still powerful.’
3. He’s alright with online.
‘Music was the way we spoke to one another in the twentieth century. That’s shifted online now. I like that, it’s more democratic. It’s like Russell Brand with “The Trews”: 30 years ago he would have had to learn to play the guitar to say that sort of shit.’
4. He wants to arm prisoners… with guitars.
‘Playing the guitar in prison, Lead Belly got respect. The theory behind Jailed Guitar Doors [Bragg’s project to give prisoners guitars] is that developing a skill like guitar-playing will help inmates’ self-respect and cut the rate of reoffending.’
5. He’s not looking for a new England – just a new system.
‘The only way to make people feel part of society is to ensure their voice is heard. You can’t have a system where one party gets one seat from 12 percent of the vote and another gets 56 seats from 3 percent of the vote. What we need is proportional representation.’
6. He’s learned not to judge by looks.
‘The disappointing thing is that the people you want to hate – the people you thought were arseholes – always turn out to be quite polite and reasonable. A lot of ’80s musicians who I thought were putting style over content would turn up on the bill at anti-apartheid gigs. I’d mistaken their haircuts for their principles. In the 1980s, I learned not to judge people by their haircuts. Although sometimes it works!’