Bragg supports Montreal protests
Published: 14/06/2012 by: www.simcoe.com
ORILLIA - Billy Bragg could hear the spirited din of Montrealers taking to the streets in protest, all the way from his home in Bridport, England.
An active supporter of the Occupy Movement that made global headlines in 2011, the seasoned activist and punk/folk-music legend was well aware of the recent goings on in la belle province, where students opposed to a planned tuition hike showed no signs of giving in to the government.
“I saw a really beautiful clip on You Tube of black-and-white footage of people out in the streets banging pots and pans,” Bragg says in advance of his July 8 headlining performance at the Mariposa Folk Festival. “It’s beautiful.”
While Bragg has spent decades penning and performing songs that aim to raise the social consciousness on a broad range of issues, he looks to the people of the communities he visits to keep up the fight, so to speak.
“My job coming in there is to make people realize that they are not alone, that people outside are aware of what they’re doing and appreciate what they are trying to achieve, and there are other people in other situations around the world that are also facing these problems,” he says.
Bragg points to a “crisis in representative democracy” as a key concern these days, a situation partly fueled, he believes, by the inability of national governments to react to global economic challenges.
“Governments flailing about with omnibus bills, I think, is only going to heighten the cynicism that people feel,” he says.
Bragg, of course, remains an ardent supporter of the left, regardless of the drubbing ‘socialism’ is taking courtesy of certain right-wing politicians south of the border.
In the U.S., he says, “they know as much about socialism as they do about football. They are totally unaware that I live in a capitalist country but we still have free health care. They are also totally unaware that Greece are currently playing the Czech Republic in Poland in the European championship. They have very little grasp of what goes on in Europe whatsoever.”
Socialism, Bragg argues, “is only worthy of that name if, at its heart, it is based on a form of organized compassion. That is what free health care is: it is nationally organized compassion, and that’s the kind of society I want to live in. I want to live in a compassionate society where the rights of the individual are sacrosanct, but we also recognize that unless each of us as individuals is a recipient of free health care, free education, decent affordable housing, a proper pension, then only the rich and powerful will get to express individualism and the rest of us will just be exploited by them.”
Ultimately, people must organize.
“Singer/songwriters can’t change the world,” Bragg adds. “I’m not trying to duck out of responsibility, I’m just trying to make sure the right people who can actually take the action, take the responsibility.”
Bragg is more confident than ever that people are doing just that, and points to the Occupy Movement as a prime example.
“What’s happened over the last couple of years with Occupy really drives me up,” he says. “I’m much more engaged now than I’ve been for a long time.”
Apart from his role as an activist, Bragg remains well regarded as an artist.
When the daughter of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie discovered a box teeming with thousands of complete lyrics that had never been put to music, she approached Bragg to do the honors.
“My initial sense was, surely this is Bob Dylan’s job, isn’t it?” he says. “She was looking for someone who really wasn’t so familiar with Woody and what he did as to be intimidated by it. She needed someone to sort of get hold of the archive and really give it a good shake, rather than go in there and reverently recreate what Woody had done.”
Teamed up with the band Wilco, Bragg and lead singer Jeff Tweedy shared vocal duties on a batch of songs, with Tweedy writing the music along with late band mate Jay Bennett.
The result revealed another side of Guthrie, one rarely depicted in discussions of his legacy as a social activist.
‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’, for example, “is about Woody and a bunch of sailor buddies getting drunk and (pursuing women),” Bragg says. “That’s where we are starting.”
The first collection of songs was released in 1998, as Mermaid Avenue, a Grammy nominated album that would be followed by a second volume two years later.
In April, Nonesuch records released Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions.
“In some ways, what we were doing was a little bit like Bob Dylan and The Band and the Basement Tapes, in the sense that a lot of the songs they recorded on the Basement Tapes were old-time songs,” Bragg says of the collaboration.
“They weren’t all songs that Dylan wrote. They played those old-timey songs in a way that connected with music that had been made since those songs were written, and kind of brought them up to date.”
Outside of the studio, Bragg continues to use his name to pursue causes dear to his heart, including electoral reform.
In 2007 he founded ‘Jail Guitar Doors’, an initiative that provides instruments to prisons that use music to help rehabilitate inmates.
“That ability that music has to transcend your surroundings, imagine how important that might be in a prison,” he says. “It’s the ability of playing to allow you to momentarily escape your surroundings. It gives you something that other people can’t get in a prison.”
Bragg often keeps in touch with inmates impacted by the program.
“Some of them I do gigs with,” he says. “There are a couple of lads who I regularly see and I played with them at the Glastonbury Festival. One of them was on my Facebook page today chattin’ away.”
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By Frank Matys
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