He was born Steven William Bragg in Essex around the time Tommy Steele was climbing the singles charts with Happy Guitar and the Soviet Union was launching Sputnik 2 into space. Today, on the verge of the release of his eleventh and best album, Mr. Love & Justice, he is known as Billy Bragg by his loyalists worldwide yet he is still called Steven by his Mother and still referred to as the Bard of Barking by the press. He has worked, and worked is the operative verb here, alongside British parliamentarians, unskilled unemployed workers, members of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, young music hopefuls, unsung buskers in the street, incarcerated convicts, newly liberated refugees, punk rockers and striking dockers.
It's been a quarter century since he took the stage for his first solo gig at North London Polytechnic, a concert advertising him under the first name Billy so his family wouldn't spot his new career move. Since then our Billy has traveled the world and spoken to everybody twice. Billy Bragg has recorded hit singles, composed Top Ten albums, penned political anthems sung at rallies, kept alive traditional English folk songs, put his own spin on America's greatest folk catalog and sung his heart out doing so. He has appeared on both MTV and late night highbrow chat shows, singing his mind on the first and speaking his mind on the latter. The Bard Of Barking has written essays for many daily newspapers of record and several notable weekly journals of comment. Perhaps his most memorable and eloquent journalism essay was his emphatic A Genuine Expression of the Will of the People, which was but one firm voice in the greater public campaign for the reform of the House of Lords.
In 2006 he authored his first book, The Progressive Patriot, an eloquent protest against the extremist British National Party electing twelve councilors in his east London hometown, electing them in the very locality which molded both the young Billy and his beliefs and, in bitter irony, contains the street so proudly named Bragg Close in his honor. But then London and politics are in the Bard's blood just like the milk and one sugar in his tea; here is the sole pop musician, the lone political activist and the only common citizen from the East End to be seriously and quite publicly nominated for a statue of himself to be cast and then mounted on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.
For a man of the people and of the streets he is indeed. Starting out those twenty five years ago as a singing-in-the-street punk/rock urchin truly left its mark on Billy as a quarter of a century later Our Man Bragg led The Big Busk, a successful yet hilarious event which saw over 500 happy people perform massed ensemble versions of classic busker material such as Knockin' On Heaven's Door and Maggie May directly in front of the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames. 500 grinning faces who've never been close to a famous person before as over three thousand guitar strings were plucked enthusiastically, many of those strings in tune.
Equally as remarkable the past ten years witnessed Billy Bragg collaborating with both Woody Guthrie and Ludwig Van Beethoven, no small feat given Guthrie died in 1967 and Beethoven one hundred and forty years before that. But when Nora Guthrie saw Billy perform in New York at a Woody celebration one summer she knew she had found the musician to edit the lyrics and apply the music to her late father's unpublished songs. Collaborating with the US indie rock group Wilco, the two Woody/Billy albums, Mermaid Ave. (Vols. 1 & 2), gave Billy Bragg a pair of sizeable North American hits and exposed him to a new audience. In 2007 Billy was commissioned to write lyrics for the Ode To Joy for a gala concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. There the Bard of Barking met Her Majesty who later requested a copy of Beethoven's score with Billy's signature on it.
The day before he met the Queen our man Bragg had been awarded the Classic Songwriter award by Q magazine in London. Introduced by K.T. Tunstall he strode to the podium to collect his award with the sound of a lusty standing ovation ringing 'round the room. One of the first in the audience to shake his hand in congratulations during that warm moment was no less than Sir Paul McCartney. Typically Billy used the attention of the record industry audience to make a plea for contributions to his program to supply guitars to prison inmates so they might rehabilitate themselves through music and gain self-esteem and a hobby or even a career. The name of this program is Jail Guitar Doors, a name Billy chose in honor of his early heroes, The Clash, who had a song by that name.
It is apparent to all observers of the current music scene that although the pride of Barking nominally toils in the pop music field a mere roll call of his hits and his classic songs would only suggest what Billy Bragg does. Such a roll call would fail entirely to declare what Billy Bragg is today or what he has meant and still means to those who have heard his melodic challenge to the status quo. To use a quote by his one of his heroes, Bob Dylan, the voice and songs of Barking's singing son "bring hope to the vanquished and humility to the mighty."
Continuing that path so accurately described by Dylan is Billy Bragg's new album, Mr. Love & Justice, featuring his band The Blokes and particularly his old pal Ian McLagan of Small Faces and Faces fame. The album's title sweetly suggests the quixotic twin themes of Billy's most heartfelt songwriting; our human frailties in romance and the never-ending pursuit of a fairer society. Produced by his longterm sidekick Grant Showbiz and featuring a guest appearance by no less than Robert Wyatt on the first track, I Keep Faith, the dozen songs of Mr. Love & Justice reaffirm Billy Bragg as no mere pop star or jobbing songwriter but as someone somehow so obviously greater than the sum of his parts. For the Bard of Barking and his myriad activities do indeed give us all hope, they inspire us and through his musical declarations he continues to shine a light which cuts through the longest shadows, which remains steady in the darkest night. The Barking lad referred to by The Times as "a national treasure" still has much to say and on Mr. Love & Justice he says those things as faithfully and articulately as ever. He's speaking for us all.
written by Sid Griffin