Billy Bragg has been playing his version of folk/punk and folk/rock since the early 1980s. He’s also a professional leftist and many of his songs are political. He’s out there on the front lines. So when the tickets for his show at City Winery turned out to be twice as expensive as any other show I’ve seen there my first thought was, “Isn’t Billy Bragg a socialist? What happened?” One of the many political thoughts he shared with us was that ‘democratic capitalism’ was an oxymoron. How about socialist capitalism, Billy?
To be fair, Bragg was playing a free concert at Lincoln Center Out of Doors the next day.
But he hadn’t played NYC in years and I’ve never seen him live. Our politics mesh pretty well and he also writes those sappy love songs I adore. He’s still tall, now with gray hair, but in his flannel shirt and jeans and his cries of “There is Power in a Union,” it’s like we’re both in our twenties again.
We heard older songs like “The Milkman of Human Kindness” and he ended the show with “A New England” with the audience singing the chorus. He played a Woody song and Bob Marley’s “One Love” with rewritten lyrics (“let’s drop the debt”) about Africa.
He played songs from the two Mermaid Avenue albums (lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by Bragg and Wilco) and played a new one from Volume III. He couldn’t remember the lyrics to “Psalm” and riffed for a bit, played another song, and then the lyrics for “Psalm” came to him and he performed it.
There were other new songs – he’s a topical songwriter like one of his influences, Phil Ochs. “Never Buy the Sun” had to be rewritten several times because the News of the World phone hacking details kept changing and more information kept coming out. The song was finished on a Saturday and on his website that Tuesday and is available as a free download. Bragg loves the internet – it’s not killing the music industry, it’s killing the record industry – and the inclusiveness of it.
Bragg is very funny. Every other song comes with a story – usually a political story – but always amusing. You don’t feel beat over the head with the politics or his earnestness. Early on Bragg said that the enemy is not capitalism or conservatism but it’s cynicism. Doubt is good. Skepticism is good. That he’s my age and not cynical and still singing and protesting and working to change to the world a bit at a time is a wonderful thing to see.
By Carene Lydia Lopez