WITNESSES pt. III – BILLY BRAGG

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I am not clued-in to the minute developments in Ferguson right now. Nor to our aggression in Iraq, what’s happening or not happening in Israel, water shortages, ice buckets, the Tsarnaev trial. I feel like I am failing because of my distance from all of that, but failing on these specific terms: I am keeping my distance because the internet (and I suppose, by extension, people?) disgusts me right now, and I’m disgusted by my own attitude about that. I like my relatively insulated Facebook feed (where conservative relatives pipe up only occasionally) better than the comments sections on specific articles I’ve been reading (where I don’t know what the fuck is happening). I cannot stand collective stances when they are less about the substance of stance than being the first/best/most righteous stance–from the collective grieving over Robin Williams to the collective condemnation of Ferguson cops. I am at a breaking point here and I feel like I’m copping out at the expense of Ferguson and my soul, which is very vain of me. I suppose all I’m saying is I’m balking at feeling disgusted by people. I like people. Even when they’re disgusting. Usually. But nothing makes me sadder than media or individual people who defend the fucking system over their brothers and sisters being killed by the system. You don’t have to be clued-in to any of this to take away from it that the system does not care about you. Your brothers and sisters are the only entities in this universe capable of caring about you. The system doesn’t care how much of a suck-up you are, whether you’re sucking up nobly in defense of the system’s logical prowess (it doesn’t matter what color you are, if you follow these steps you won’t get harassed) or righteously in defense of its racial assessments (all of those kids are trouble, if it was a white kid there wouldn’t have been riots)–the system will not reward you with untouchable riches, and even if it does, it will still turn on you when it fucking wants to. Your brothers and sisters are the ones you can’t live without, because they grow your food and teach your children. You can live without a military, and you should, because militaries suck up all the money that should go toward teaching your children. I was in the post office the other day and the first thing the clerk said to me, referring to Michael Brown, was, “The kid was no angel.”

So I can’t take it anymore, a position from which I claim no moral authority. I’m being too lazy to go to better media for these things, too “busy” to go work with The Democracy Center down the street. But this is a music blog and there is a musical component to this–to frustration over obvious things and not being clued-in to minute things. All the reviews I’ve been writing lately are about albums that were made before all this shit had gone down (duh) (but, on the other hand, shit has gone down before this), and I feel less convinced when I write that these albums have important things to say than I usually do. When the government shut down last October rather than pass a healthcare reform thing, the indie band Dikembe from Gainesville re-assembled themselves as Government Breakdown and released a hardcore punk EP called Fuck Your Health for free. It was a great rhetorical response to the situation! Hardcore responds to government bullshit very well. I am not clued-in enough to have heard of a similar musical coming out of Ferguson, Iraq, or Palestine yet. HAVE YOU? I’ve been feeling that gap in this discourse. I don’t want another HuffPo article, I want a furious album. I want an album that asks “ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY, TAKING THE GOVERNMENT’S SIDE? ARE YOU FUCKING CRAZY, ASKING FOR QUALIFICATION BEFORE YOU JOIN THE SIDE OF CIVILIANS BEING MURDERED IN THEIR HOMETOWNS BY THE PEOPLE TO WHOM THEY PAY TAXES FOR PROTECTION?” In my Drive-By Truckers–English Oceans review I said I was grateful to have a band like them that’s on the peoples’ side no matter what. They know the people are shitty to each other sometimes and that at the end of the day cops are people, but they’re never going to fool themselves into thinking that the people are the real problem or that cops haven’t spent the whole day serving the problem. I’ve been thinking about the Drive-By Truckers, I’ve been thinking about Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat, and wondering whether my expectation for instant gratification is too much for right now. I haven’t been listening to them, or anything political lately. I’ve been expressly avoiding Vietnam-era stuff that I usually love because I think it would sound tone-deaf in this context, but maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been listening a lot to a 90’s rock band from England called Bivouac, who are fucking awesome and sound appropriately like collapse. I think Protomartyr’s Under Color of Official Right from this April is an album to reckon with this moment. BUT I ASK YOU AGAIN, sincerely, is there a contemporary music addressing this shit that you’ve encountered? Or, what music do you turn to in extended situations like these, if you find yourself needing to turn to music?

I’m going to look to Billy Bragg now, even though I haven’t been turning to his music in these past weeks, because as a songwriter/person he offers a great example of how to maneuver in these kinds of situation. This is a continuation of the Mark Kozelek and Phil Ochs pieces that discussed their roles as activists/witnesses/first-person songwriters.

Before becoming known as a troubadour and labor rights activist, British songwriter Billy Bragg briefly led a Clash-inspired punk band called Riff Raff. One of their songs from the late 70’s stayed with Bragg through his transition to solo/folk songwriting—“It Says Here,” an Orwellian screed against money-chasing media bias. In 1984 Bragg led off his first solo LP Brewing Up With Billy Bragg with the song. Over a quarter-century later, Bragg combated the issue again in the wake of The Sun’s phone-hacking scandal, with his 2011 freely issued single “Never Buy the Sun.”

It Says Here

It Says Here: 

It says here that this year’s prince is born
It says here do you ever wish that you were better informed
And it says here that we could only stop the rot
With a large dose of law and order and a touch of the short sharp shock
If this does not reflect your view you should understand
That those who own the papers also own this land
And they’d rather you believe in coronation street capers
In the war of circulation, it sells newspapers
Could it be an infringement of the freedom of the press
To print pictures of women in states of undress
When you wake up to the fact that you paper is Tory
Just remember, there are two sides to every story

Never Buy The Sun

Never Buy the Sun:

Tabloids making millions betting bullshit baffles brains
And they cynically hold up their hands if anyone complains
And just say “Well, we’re just giving the people what they want”
Well they’re crying out for justice

Bragg’s choice to translate his punk Riff Raff song into a folk song seems like a choice based on sustainability, and, in light of the folky “Never Buy The Sun,” a choice that allows for instant, direct response. Artists can logistically travel further and cheaper as a solo act than as a band. And it is easier to respond to a current event if you only have to execute a song yourself. Although, of course, most DIY forms of music enjoy the possibility of instant witnessing—especially punk, which at its most populist and inclusive functions as folk music. For example, the aforementioned Government Breakdown EP.

If Guthrie’s project was to put what he saw of America into songs; if Dylan’s was to use Guthrie’s folk forms to address contemporary issues, combining them with dynamic forms of rock and roll and lyrical philosophy; if Ochs’ was to uphold the responsibility of songwriters to Guthrie’s standards of witnessing, to the importance of first-person narrative, to navigate the poet-witness’ role after Dylan redefined it; and we’re skipping over the beautiful projects of Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and Steve Earle and Nina Simone and…; then Billy Bragg’s is to reconcile all of the above with punk rock, to make sure that after The Clash broke up that people still knew that Joe Strummer wanted to be called “Woody” by his friends because he looked up to Guthrie. His career is the example of how witnessing can be effective in the tension between traditional forms like folk and reactionary forms like punk.

Bragg’s “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night,” featured on perhaps his most pointedly political collection of songs, The Internationale EP, significantly borrows its title from Afred Hayes’ poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” which had been made into a song by artists like Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Joan Baez, and in turn referenced by Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”

Bragg’s song is an intersection of that lineage of songs and another lineage that includes Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad,” which was set to the tune of the traditional “Ballad of John Henry,” a tune borrowed independently by Phil Ochs in his song “Joe Hill.” Bragg’s song about Phil Ochs, when all’s said, forwards the melody of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” while maintaining the seminal verse from the Guthrie/Ochs line of songs, the Steinbeckian “Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ a guy, I’ll be there”—inspired verse:

I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night

Bragg “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night”

When the song of freedom rings out loud
From valleys and from hills
Where people stand up for their rights
Phil Ochs is with us still
Phil Ochs inspires us still

Tom Joad – Part I

Guthrie “Tom Joad”

Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free.
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights,
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be

I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night

Robeson “Joe Hill”

From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
Where working men defend their rights,
it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill,
it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill!

By “writing his words to the tunes of the day,” as Ochs sang of Hill, Bragg connects the testimonies of those previous generations of songs, storytellers, and subjects. Indeed, his whole persona is carefully constructed to embody and pass on the tradition of witness songwriting. The guitar Bragg plays live is emblazoned with The Clash stickers. His biggest commercial success has been his collaborative albums with Wilco wherein they record unearthed Woody Guthrie songs. When Bragg plays a Clash or Woody Guthrie song live, he always carefully explains the context of the original, what the songwriting choices meant at the time, and how they remain relevant. But Bragg also wardens the first person perspective inherent to those witness songwriters. He talks about what his life was like when he saw is first Clash show. He writes I dreamed I saw my hero last night and he compared my time to his and steeled me to continue working.

Even when Bragg isn’t singing from a direct first-person point-of-view, he achieves a similar directness. Perhaps songs can do this because they assume a speaker and a listener. Perhaps folk songs can do this at such a consistent and high level because they posit that there is an oppressor and the oppressed, and that the song witnesses on behalf of the oppressed. If you were getting the oppressive point of view, it wouldn’t be through the folk song—the form anybody has access to—it would be through more privileged means like corporate news. The performance of a folk song is therefore an insistence on a point-of-view from the oppressed—a testimony. Which is why Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” warranted a response from Ochs in his Gunfight at Carnegie Hall album—the power of populist music isn’t a secret, don’t take it for granted that it won’t be used against your best interests. And which is why Bragg also has an activist project called Jail Guitar Doors that brings musical instruments into prisons to help inmates maintain a voice; to resist the whittling down of the resource of first-person perspectives. Merle Haggard, an inmate himself, rededicated his life to music after seeing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin, where Haggard was jailed.

All that said, I don’t think folk or punk will be the form the best responses to this current shit will take, no matter how immediate, angry, or people-championing they historically are; probably because they’re forms largely, though not exclusively, taken up by white people. I don’t think an acoustic guitar can bring the world into focus the way it needs to be right now. And this is just me asking for focus from the point of view of someone disgusted with the internet; what the fuck is going to need to be sung from the point of view of people who are there?

Author: Mike Ostrov

Mike Ostrov relays the history of popular song on message boards and under rocks.

8 thoughts on “WITNESSES pt. III – BILLY BRAGG”

  1. “(all of those kids are trouble, if it was a white kid there wouldn’t have been riots)”

    Mike, I’m going to have to strenuously disagree with you on this one. I teach in the South Bronx. Most of my teacher colleagues work in “underprivileged” communities. My kids are harassed by the cops every day. Every. Day. It’s not just the beat cops. It’s the cops who are stationed IN MY SCHOOL to keep it “safe.” (The school cops don’t know how to properly lock the school down when there’s a shooting, BTW. I could literally do their job better and I don’t have any training. But I digress.) I’ve heard stories about my kids getting called names, getting pushed to the ground, getting stuff taken out of their pockets (which is ABSOLUTELY illegal), getting pushed off their bikes, getting groped by male cops if they’re female students who present as butch (also illegal — females are supposed to be searched by female cops.) I confronted a police officer who wrote up one of my 13-year-olds for accidentally throwing a can onto a railway track. The officer covered his badge, literally screamed in my face, and threatened to arrest my student just because I was standing there observing the proceedings which, by the way, is my constitutional right as an American citizen.

    These things don’t happen to white kids in New York City.

    And if a cop HAD shot a white kid? He would’ve been suspended IMMEDIATELY. His name would have been released. The kid’s body wouldn’t have lain out in the street UNCOVERED for HOURS. I doubt an officer would have even opened fire, much less hassled a couple of white kids for walking in the middle of the street. And even so, there’s no reason to shoot ANYONE six times, much less take two head shots. Just for walking in the street.

    So to say that the black community in ANY city is behaving poorly for breaking shit is to completely ignore the issue. This is a breaking point for stuff that happens every day. Stuff that’s been happening since Billy Bragg released his punk albums. In fact, a lot of the songs featured on this blog casually refer to violence as if it’s an appropriate response. How many hundreds of murder ballads have been featured on here? Or just songs about being so angry you want to break stuff? But when things actually DO get violent, suddenly that’s a problem?

    Musically, there have been a lot of independent rappers releasing music about Ferguson. Lauryn Hill just released a beautiful new song called “Black Rage” (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/lauryn-hill-black-rage-new-song-ferguson-20140821) But you’re right — major musicians have yet to develop ANY kind of response to Ferguson.

    As for me, Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues has been my go-to for the past year when I’m raging against the system. In general I turn to queer punk (including Sleater-Kinney) since there’s a lot of intersectionality between queer rights and, well, everybody’s rights. Death of the Self-Preservation Society is my second go-to because it directly addresses the bankruptcy and instability of the current system.

  2. I must have phrased that problematically. The sentence you quoted was supposed to be portrayed as a bullshit terrible response.

    Thank you for your reading and thoughtful response. I like your point about violence/murder ballads.

    1. “whether you’re sucking up nobly in defense of the system’s logical prowess (it doesn’t matter what color you are, if you follow these steps you won’t get harassed) or righteously in defense of its racial assessments (all of those kids are trouble, if it was a white kid there wouldn’t have been riots)”

      ^^^ that’s all supposed to be pretty sarcastic. No nobility or righteousness in either of those positions, but a lot of people are acting like there is. No logic to be adhered to if the logic is upholding a violent hierarchy. And of course the racial shit is the same old dumb shit.

      Is it clear that I’m just frustrated with the way “the internet” and musicians and myself have responded? Fuck the cops and anybody apologizing for them. I’m all for the peoples’ outrage, which is common sense, not a badge of honor. I’m only cringing at the outrage that reeks of fashion. I wish that I was actually putting more of my heart into the outrage, which is what the article is about, and I want to see more musical heart coming through right now.

      1. Gotcha.

        I’ve been attending some marches around the city since I’m young and an idealist. I’m sure there was a vigil for Michael Brown around where you lived. If you can find the Facebook page for the one in your area (search National Moment of Silence) people may have/still be posting links to other resources. I also have a number of links to other ways to support the “good guys.” (For example, kids who are depending on school-provided meals in Ferguson have been without because schools have been closed, so a few teachers started a food pantry.)

        Money’s not the only way to fix this, of course. I know congresscritters do take letters seriously since so few people take the time to actually write them. There’s also been a lot of organizing against police brutality in NYC. I’m sure there are other people around your parts doing the same.

      2. I should also point out that I’ve been hyper-defensive about this entire story, and so my sarcasm detectors were working at half power. 😉

  3. Don’t have anything in particular to say except thumbs-up on this post and am relieved the confusion above regarding “kid was trouble” was cleared up quickly. You wrote from the heart and asked some good questions. Thank you.

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