With Mermaid Avenue – the 1998 album you made with Wilco using Woody Guthrie's unheard lyrics – you’ve brought a lot of depth to a folk hero that time might have rendered quite two-dimensional.
Basically the aim of Nora, his daughter, when she first asked me to make an album of the lyrics was to put some flesh and blood on a man who had become a bit of a two-dimensional character that people only really knew for protests and writing ‘This Land is Your Land’ – but he was much, much more than that. Many of the songs that we used on the Mermaid Avenue record were written in Brooklyn in New York in the 1940s – a much more modern Woody Guthrie than the pre-war 1930s dust bowl Woody Guthrie.
I’ll still be getting away ten, eleven songs [at the Sydney show] but I will be trying to challenge the perception of people in the audience who think they know about Woody Guthrie. I’ll be talking about Woody writing songs about flying in a flying saucer and wanting to make love to Ingrid Bergman on the slopes of an Italian volcano. It’s a slightly different Woody Guthrie from the one you might know.
Mermaid Avenue has had such a long reach. It seems to be in every record collection and played in every café in Sydney. Did you anticipate that when you first took the project on all those years ago?
Not really, no. I think at the time when we were making it, I was a bit concerned that it might just sound like a covers record. Nora’s idea was to have an artist singing every track. She had a long list of folk singers that she thought would be good for the project. I said to her, “Look, we’re going to lose Woody in that if it’s a crowd. Why don’t you just let me make the record? Let me find a band and just me and the band will make the record so the record will sound like a complete and cohesive piece of work and Woody will shine through.” That’s what we aimed to do and fortunately it seemed to work. I’m amazed at how popular it was, particularly in Australia. The only place we got a gold record for Mermaid Avenue was in Australia, and that’s partly why I really wanted to bring this show down your way.
Your Guthrie project began back in 1996. Is this show your goodbye to the man?
I think he’s kind of always been there. I was someone who was hugely influenced by Bob Dylan, and even in my early 1980s incarnation I recorded one of Woody’s songs, ‘Deportee’. So he kind of always informed my work, and as a result of Mermaid Avenue I’ve kind of become… I won’t say ‘representative’, but people who want Woody Guthrie in their shows, particularly in the UK and Europe, are following me up. They want somebody to represent. I was doing a show as part of Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown last weekend at the Royal Festival Hall in London. They were doing a show of songs from the Civil Rights era, put together by a guy called Hal Wilmer. They came up to me and said, “We’d really like someone to come and sing some of Woody’s songs. Would you be able to do that?” and I’m always happy to do that. It kind of gets me to an audience that I don’t always get to, you know.
When I started to do the Mermaid Avenue shows I was getting people who were my age. I was about 40 then. But I was also getting young people at the gigs and the old, grey brigade who were also into Woody. It’s a great thing to be a part of, and although myself, I think of myself as a punk rocker, I know it might sound strange, but the folk music audience have really taken me to heart. And the positive thing about that is in folk music, you’re encouraged to get old. It’s not a bad thing if you’ve got grey hair and a beard. Whereas in punk rock, after about 50 the leather trousers start to get a bit – what should I say – a bit sad.
This year in the UK everyone’s suddenly a patriot. How have you been feeling about the Jubilee and the Olympics?
Well, I think there are different kinds of patriotism, aren’t there? There’s the patriotism of duty, which is the kind of Jubilee patriotism where we’re all expected to stand along the banks of the River Thames and wave the Union Jack when the old lady goes past on the podium on the right. That’s not really my idea of a good time. And then there’s the patriotism of the Olympics, which I find a completely different experience altogether. That was a patriotism in which we were invited to participate – it wasn’t something that we had to do out of duty. We were invited to engage with our athletes on our team, and there was a possibility of failure there. We could engage with them and it could go either way.
That’s a different sort of patriotism. Although some of my more traditional left-wing friends felt a bit queasy about the waving of Union Jacks, I think when a Union Jack is being waved by someone like Jessica Ennis, or the parents of a Somali immigrant, that’s a completely different message to the one that’s been given by the British National Party. When the BNP wave the flag, they invite you in to share their prejudice and their divisive ideas, whereas when it’s Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah, they’re inviting you to share in the success of someone from any background who can reach their full potential in your country – and that is something to be proud of. I’m not saying that we’ve all suddenly become patriotic, but there may have been a shift in the idea of who we are, or perhaps who we could be.
I think sometimes people think there’s only one kind of patriotism, but my experience is that patriotism is not a kind of socialism, there are lots of different varieties of it. Anyone on the left will know a dozen or so different types of socialism. I think that’s the same with patriotism. The reasons why you love your country aren’t always the traditional reasons of blood and soil. I get angry about politics. I oppose the Conservative Party because I love my country and I want it to be better. I think it’s interesting that the Olympic experience has fired up those kinds of things.
I bought your book, The Progressive Patriot, for my father, who’s a member of a right-wing party. I have to admit I bought it to wind him up, but he loved it.
I’m glad. I hope it helped you to get a bit closer to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he feels himself to be a patriot. The book is about why I love my country, and it’s about the local history. It’s undercut the narrow ground that your father stands on. That’s my aim. We really should be embracing the symbols of our nation and making sure they represent who we are now, rather than some narrow backward-looking idea. They say that about conservatives – they look backwards to go forwards. You see how you might bump into things doing that.
Some people are complacent by nature, while others have a fire burning inside them, always. In your case, do you think it’s nature or nurture?
[Laughs] Since I’ve come off my medication I’ve become so much more active. I don’t know what it is. I think the urge to communicate is what drives me to talk about things. I generally write about things that piss me off, and they can be the government, they can also be about relationships, can also be about me, it can be about the weather. I think, in the end, the urge to try to make a contribution to the ongoing debate is becoming accessible to more people because of the internet. So I think that there is a possibility there that young people will become more engaged and more active.
Did your parents have quite a social conscience?
No, my parents weren’t political at all, really. We didn’t talk much about politics when I was young. In fact my dad wouldn’t tell my mum how he voted so she would make her own mind up. That’s the only conversation I can remember of a political conversation with my parents: my mum complaining about my dad not letting her know what he voted for so her vote wouldn’t cancel out his vote. Other than that, I picked up my politics from the Daily Mirror. My dad brought the Daily Mirror home every day. In the late ’60s the Daily Mirror was quite a campaigning newspaper. I think I got a bit of it from there, but really most of it I got from listening to the music of black America in the 1960s – soul music. It’s really impossible to listen to people like Marvin Gaye and Smoky Robinson and the Four Tops and the Temptations without picking up some of the politics of the Civil Rights movement. So I grew up thinking music was a vehicle for talking about things in the world that you thought were wrong, and I still believe that.
Your ’83 cassette, Life’s a Riot With Spy Vs Spy, was blank on one side, and you invited people to “Bootleg the Bragg”. Do you still feel that way about people taking music for free?
I think so. I think you’re trying to connect with people, engage with people. There’s much too much concern about people sharing music. I think people sharing your music online, they’re the real pirates. I’d like the government to do something about that. I’d like the authorities to stop them selling Billy Bragg records and not giving me any money, but when young people share my music, that’s a form of promotion, really. That’s how I always felt about the bootleg thing. It’s bought by people that love your work. They’re still going to buy your album when it comes out. We shouldn’t worry too much about those people who, in the old days, would buy the live tapes in the Camden Market. When you come to town, they would see your show – the word spreads.
I’m seeing quite a few young people at my shows and they’re not learning about me from Radio One. They can only be learning about me from their peers on the internet. That helps a lot. We don’t make so much money from making records anymore, but the great thing about music now, is availability. More people want to come to gigs. So we’re making a living that way.
You come to Australia fairly frequently.
I come out once every record, generally. And then sometimes I get put on the Big Day Out, so I should imagine it might be eight or nine times in the last 25 years.
Are you a diarist?
I used to be. I used to keep a diary when I was a teenager, but now there’s so much going on I don’t have time to set my thoughts down every night. I’ll tell you what does work as a diary really good is Facebook. You know how they put that timeline thing in, if you want to know what you were doing last year or two years ago, you just click back and it’s all there. I wouldn’t say that it’s a diary but it’s a very good aided memoir. As long as Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t switch it off we’ll be all right.
You started out as a busker as well as a heavy gigger, so you earned your stripes. What do you think of the fast routes into music these days via TV shows?
Well, I don’t think they’re going to have a career that lasts, really. In some ways, I’m amazed people in Australia are still interested in what I’m doing after all this time. I think it’s partly because the audience that are into my music are not the sort of people that go out and buy the No.1 hit single. They’re into music for other reasons, for the longer-term, and I think if I had had that huge smash hit in the 1980s, I don’t think I would be still out there doing gigs. It’s the whole thing about the long tail, isn’t it? The internet allows you to not sell millions and millions of records but make a living, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m still able to make a living doing this job, and I’m pleased about that. I’m probably never going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but I’m not really worried about that. As long as I don’t have to go and work in a car factory, I’m happy.
Has anyone done a Bragg cover you really approve of?
Probably my favourite cover is a cover of ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ by a band called the Redskins. I did loads of shows with the Redskins. They were all active members of the Socialist Workers Party and every single song they had was political – and not just political, it was dour and humourless. And I love politics, but I used to watch their gigs and think, “My god, do you have to go on about it in every single song? Where’s your humanity?” Then one night, they did ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and they did it so beautifully, more like a soul song than I ever sing it. It just made me heartbroken because if they had done a few more love songs they might still be playing. As it is, they were so ideologically pure that when they had a bit of success, it just knocked them off the rails.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve just been reading a biography of Big Bill Broonzy called I Feel So Good, which somebody gave to me when I was at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago where Big Bill Broonzy lives. So I’ve been reading about Big Bill and I just got a guide to New York City called My Name is New Yorkabout the places in New York where Woody Guthrie lived and I’ve been reading that as well. But I’ve got a bloody pile of books here on my sideboard. I’m looking at it thinking, “Shit, how am I going to get to read all those?”
Your website’s very thorough and you’ve got all the social networking bases covered as well. Does that take up a lot of your time?
Some days. Some days I will post something on Facebook or I’ll write something for the website and I’ll spend a couple of hours responding to people’s comments. It’s not every day, but it’s a good way to keep in touch with the people who are into what you’re doing.