Q & A With Billy Bragg: Mixing Pop and Politics
British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg and Lincoln Center will join forces on July 27 to host The Big Busk. The interactive concert invites musicians of all abilities to join Bragg on stage to play classic busking songs — familiar sing-along numbers. The six songs played will be chosen by the public via social media sites.
MetroFocus spoke with Bragg about the details of the event, his early career as a busker and the political and poetical ends of Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.
Q: What inspired the Big Busk?
A: The Big Busk was something I first did in London in 2007 and the organizers invited me to perform a few sets of songs around the building — busker songs, which have a big tradition in London, where people busk along the banks of the River Thames. We thought it would be a nice idea. The very first one in 2007 was such a success that we’ve since done it a few more times.
Q: How long were you a busker for?
A: Probably about a year in London in 1980.
Q: How much did you earn on a good day?
A: In the old days we’d get about 50 pounds in paper notes. I wouldn’t let myself go home until I’d made at least 15 quid, because that’s how much you needed to pay the bills.
Q: What were the most profitable songs?
A: The one that was the best for me was always the Elvis Presley song “Fool’s Rush In.” I used to busk in the tunnel at the station where the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum are. It was a wonderful old train tunnel, beautifully tiled. It gave it some reverb. It really held my notes up. Bob Marley was always good. Any Bob Marley song.
Q: Your own work is fairly evenly split between love songs and protest songs – both structurally simple, yet emotionally complex forms. Which do the Big Busk participants seem to favor, love songs or protest songs?
A: They prefer the love songs. We find the songs work when they’re familiar. It’s like folky karaoke. It’s the kind of things you might choose on a karaoke machine.
Q: The Big Busk is a participatory event; that seems to be a trend in pop music because of new technologies. Do you think pop music should aim to become more participatory, or do we risk losing something important – whatever kind of connection we make with a single person on stage with their guitar?
A: I think that person is always there. What you get playing guitar, it’s such a therapeutic thing. The singer songwriter came in with Sinatra and it’s always been there. It’s very personal and I can’t imagine it’ll die out. It’s almost to music what reading is to literature and I can’t believe people won’t want to sit down and play an instrument. That’s what we want to do with the Big Busk. It’s open to all levels of musicianship, but there are some people really intently following who probably know the songs better than I do. We have volunteers who hold up the chords to the songs so that people can follow along, and we gather an hour beforehand and run through the songs. Often the run-through — actually sitting down and talking about technique — I get as much joy out of that as the performance.
Q: The last decade has been an incredibly tense time politically. But that political intensity hasn’t been represented in popular music – certainly not to the degree that it was in the ’60s and ’70s. Why do you think that is?
A: Well, when I felt angry about something in 1979 I couldn’t go on Twitter, I couldn’t go on Facebook. Coming from a working class background, all I had was the platform of music. And in the high period of pop music it was the only platform we had to talk to one another — young people — so everything went through pop music. Now, there are many other platforms.
I’ll give you an example. Rupert Murdoch decided to close the News of the World, because it’s been illegally hacking phone messages, and on Friday I was driving to a gig and I had an idea for a song. It’s called “Never Buy the Sun.” The Sun is the daily newspaper here. [News of the World was the sister publication of The Sun, which has been embroiled in many of its own major scandals.] I posted a video of me playing it on Youtube and already I’m getting loads of positive reactions from people. During the miner’s strike in 1984, I wrote a song and it took me four or five months to get that into the shops. The Internet has taken away focus from peoples’ thoughts, but it gives us songwriters a real edge and puts us alongside the journalists, which I think is where we’ve been all along.
Q: Do you have a favorite public space in New York City?
A: My favorite public space in NYC is Washington Square Park for its association with radical folk singers like Woody Guthrie.
MetroFocus Multimedia Editor John Farley conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.