The 2008-09 schedule for the Duke Performances series is out, and the most intriuing date on it (to me, anyway) is British punk-folk raconteur Billy Bragg at Page Auditorium on Nov. 1. Gee, you don't think Bragg might have a few things to say about a major event happening a few days after that, do you?
Below, a sample...
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Oct. 21, 2002
CARRBORO -- Singer/guitarist Billy Bragg is a true cultural polyglot -- a British punk rocker with a genuine affinity for the American folk-singing tradition; an old-school leftist with an unabashed streak of romanticism; a raconteur who can be furious as well as disarmingly droll.
This balancing act made Bragg the perfect interpreter of folk singing icon Woody Guthrie on two "Mermaid Avenue" albums. Commissioned by Guthrie's daughter Nora, "Mermaid Avenue" had Bragg and the American rock band Wilco writing music to unrecorded lyrics Guthrie left behind. The project was a complete success, setting the stage for Wilco's fantastic new masterwork "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (Nonesuch Records) and Bragg's own very fine "England, Half English" (Elektra Records).
The title "England, Half English" comes from a 1961 book by U.K. writer Colin MacInnes, about the diversity brought on by immigration -- a subject as applicable to America as to England. Various songs on the album rail against the excesses of nationalism ("Take Down the Union Jack") and Enron-style corruption ("NPWA," an acronym for "No Power Without Accountability"). But there's also one that celebrates the joys of parenthood ("Baby Farouk").
Bragg is touring America as a duo with Small Faces keyboardist Ian McLagen, a show that comes to Carrboro's Cat's Cradle on Wednesday. He called from his home in England.
Q: What was it like being on the British celebrity version of "The Weakest Link" game show?
A: It was actually quite funny. I only went on because it's my mom's favorite program and she never would have forgiven me if I'd turned it down. So I did it for a laugh and when it was down to the last three I thought, "What the heck, I could actually win this if I play my cards right" -- and I'm pleased to say I won out over Suzi Quatro. I won 11,000 pounds for a medical foundation to aid the victims of torture. A lot of people who seek political asylum in England wind up getting physically and mentally tortured, a lot of them children.
Q: Issues of immigration feature prominently on "England, Half English."
A: The way we react to immigrants says a lot about us. The demonization of those who come here seeking a better standard of living suggests we're a rather selfish bunch. We need to be more open-minded. My country traditionally has benefited from immigration. We're Anglo-Saxons, and that little hyphen says a lot. I mean, imagine if the Beatles had only listened to British music. But they were tremendously influenced by American music and made the quintessential English music of the 20th century. That's the way it works.
Q: As a foreigner of the leftist political persuasion, it must be odd to tour the U.S. nowadays.
A: I think there's still a lot of anger about Sept. 11, understandably. [Europeans] do have great empathy over what happened. We share their shock at the injustice and magnitude of it. But although we sympathize, particularly with the victims, that does not mean we therefore have to support everything the Bush administration is doing as a result.
It's a line to tread and I learn as I go along. Maybe I'll overstep the mark, and there will be some discussion. It's a learning experience rather than a schtick. Mid-tour, by the time I get to you, I'll be readjusting my sights for Florida. I've never been there. Places like that are always interesting; you find a surprising amount of activists. In Tucson, Ariz., I thought some guy was calling me a "red fag"; but he was yelling out for "Red Flag," an old English labor song. So you dismiss those places at your peril because gigs there are the most inspiring.
Q: Do you get into heated discussions with the audience at your shows?
A: Yeah, I don't have hecklers, I have heated debaters. But it's cool, I don't mind. The political situation -- the ramifications of invading Iraq, midterm elections, the failure of the Bush administration to sign the Kyoto accords about climate change, the dock strike on the West Coast -- that will all be stuff we'll talk about. My audience expects me to reflect what's happening. But I can't let politics overwhelm things. I have to do some love songs, too. The bottom line is to entertain people.
Q: What do you think Woody Guthrie would make of things in America now?
A: Woody was a very compassionate man. He didn't really hate anybody except out-and-out fascists and racists. New York was his hometown for half his life; he was a Brooklynite as much as an Okie. He would have felt Sept. 11 as an incredible blow, but I don't think he'd be comfortable with the remedies being offered. It's much more complex than "You're either with us or with the terrorists."
Woody would've stood up and made a patriotic case for America making a better world -- which is what those of us outside the U.S. want. We want an America that wants to make the world better, not an America that's unilaterally careering around with a chip on its shoulder. I am opposed to knee-jerk anti-Americanism, which I'm sorry to say there's a lot of in the antiwar movement in Europe. I was in Hamburg recently and I told this woman I was playing in America soon. "I pity you," she said. "No," I told her, "there will be as many people in Carrboro against the war as there were here tonight in Hamburg."