Ain’t nobody who can sing — or bring the progressive fire — like Billy Bragg

Pub date October 7, 2013
SectionPolitics Blog

During his set yesterday at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, iconic British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg said he doesn’t understand why he was booked for an event devoted to Americana, although he did note that it was Brits like the Beatles and Rolling Stones that first popularized African American roots music for white Americans.

Yet in the spirit of legendary American folk singer Woody Guthrie, whose songs Bragg covered with Wilco on the amazing Mermaid Avenue albums, Bragg yesterday unleashed a righteous lefty diatribe against US political powers who were willing to shut down the government and default on its debts rather than offer universal healthcare to its citizens.

“Health care is the Jim Crow issue of the 21st Century,” Bragg said, also calling healthcare reform the “civil rights issue of this time” and calling for “free health care for every American.”

After closing his set with a rousing rendition of Guthrie’s “All you Fascists Bound to Lose,” he implored the young audience to rise up and “just get true.” Apparently his messages resonated with both the audience and organizers, who allowed him back on stage for an encore and some more fearless truth-talking.

“Socialism is organized compassion,” Bragg said, urging Americans to drop their irrational fears of socialized medicine (not to mention the far more insurance-based Obamacare), before playing his anthem, “There is Power in a Union.”

Bragg closed by saying that our enemy in this struggle isn’t the right-wing crazies shutting down our government, it is our own apprehensions about what can be done in this country, and the fear of advocating for what needs to be done.

“The enemy is cynism,” Bragg said, “and the only antidote to your cyncism is your activism.”

I and others left the show with our political fires stirred, as Sup. John Avalos also confirmed when I ran into him after the show, traipsing through the woods of Golden Gate Park toward the next stage. And I thought about what Hardly Strictly founder Warren Hellmen told me about this festival and form of music when I interviewed him for a profile that ran as a Guardian cover story in 2007.

“I feel very strongly that an important part of our culture is built on the type of music and type of performance that goes on at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass,” Hellman told me. From parables set to music to songs of struggle and the old union standards, “that kind of music is the conscience of our country.”

He considered bluegrass a vital and historically important form of political communication, more so than many of the upscale art forms that he and other rich people have tended to sponsor in San Francisco.

“I’m glad that we have first-rate opera, but it’s equally important that we foster the kind of music, lyrics, etc., that support all this,” he said. “Somebody once said that most of the great Western philosophy is buried in the words of country songs. And that’s closer to the truth than most people think. A big passion of mine is to try to help — and people have defined it too narrowly — the kinds of music that I think have a hell of a lot to do with the good parts of our society.”

And that was something that it took a fiery Brit to remind of us of this weekend.