I am a fan of live music (who isn’t), but I usually don’t write much about shows I go to. A recent Billy Bragg concert gave me the opportunity to pull my two passions, music and politics together. This piece was submitted to Streetvibes.
Sometimes when you’re an activist, there are times when things seem so bleak that you question whether or not you should keep fighting. As Billy Bragg said at his show at the Southgate House Revival last Tuesday, “it’s not capitalism that’s the problem, it’s cynicism,” if there were ever a cure for that cynicism, it would be Billy’s music.
Bragg, an English rocker and activist, has been playing for over 30 years. In that time, he has seen the rise and fall of Thatcherism, Britain’s involvement in imperialist wars in the middle east, the letdown of Tony Blair (who he regretfully admits he campaigned for) and most recently the rise and fall of the Occupy Movement. Bragg doesn’t let those disappointments bring him down though–he channels his indignation into music to inspire crowds across the world.
The setlist included a number of old classics like “Power in a Union” and “All you Fascists” (he would play several Woody Guthrie songs that night, including the unconventional “My Flying Saucer”) and also some newer songs off his latest record “Tooth and Nail.” The total number of songs was somewhat short, only 18 in the main set, but Braggs lengthy intros, which oscillated between funny and deathly serious (talking at length about the troubling rise of the BNP and the fightback against them), were almost as good as the songs themselves.
Bragg admitted that people had accused him of “going country”on his new record. And with the heavy steel guitar and a upright electric bass backing him, it’s easy to see why. But his new songs, like his old, share a relevance that is really lacking among musicians who might identify as leftists. The new record has songs like “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” which contains metaphors that are deeper than can be found on much of his earlier work, but it’s as timely as ever and still retains the direct and deliberate calls to action that have marked his music:
What happens when the markets drop,
If the numbers really don’t add up?
Everyone seeks the safe haven.
And as they contemplate their ruin,
The self-proclaimed smartest people in the room
Are trying very hard not to sound craven
But what if there’s nothing, no pot of gold to find?
Only the blind leading the blind.
Let’s stop pretending
We can manage our way out of here.
Let’s stop defending the indefensible.
Let’s stop relying on
The lecturing of the experts
Whose spin just makes our plight incomprehensible.
In the encore of the concert, after talking about the importance of organizing over cynicism, Bragg went into what he sometimes calls his theme song “Waiting for the great leap forward” which reminds listeners that if they believe in a better world, then they have to be the ones to organize for it. His backing band gradually rejoined him on stage, possibly a deliberate metaphor to what it’s like to actually organize.
While you’re waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
One leap forwards, two leaps back
Will politics get me the sack?
Here comes the future and you can’t run from it
If you’ve got a tattoo I want to be on it
It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n roll
From Top of the Pops to drawing the dole
If no one seems to understands
Start your own revolution, cut out the middleman
It was great to see everyone in the crowd so excited at his message, but afterward I wondered with the person I went to the show with–where are all these people every other day of the year?–maybe some of them read Streetvibes. So to them I say: If you’re a fan of Billy, heed his message! Our ecology is falling apart, racists kill black youths everyday and lock up the ones that don’t get shot, rape culture is rampant and patriarchy is still king, we’re droning children and gearing up for more wars, income inequality is off the map and gentrification is kicking people out of their homes. Get involved, because things aren’t going to change until we all step up to change them.