Billy Bragg brings Woody Guthrie back to vibrant life

Your new Rhino compilation Reaching to the Converted has been a pleasant surprise. I didn't have high expectations for a set billed as "Rarities and B-Sides," but songs like "Ontario, Quebec and Me" and the monologue "Walk Away Renee" are as beautiful as anything you've written.

There's a story about that. When we were recording the original version of "Greetings to the New Brunette" (in 1986), Johnny Marr (of the Smiths) played guitar on it. He had come in to do the acoustic overdub, just sitting in the studio with the mics around him, and he started playing "Walk Away Renee." I told the engineer to roll the tapes, and I took a cassette of it home on the tube train and wrote this monologue coming back on the train in the morning. I played it for Johnny, and he said, "Let me record it properly." It was a B-side to "Levi Stubbs' Tears," but it got radio play in England at the time, and it's quite cherished by fans.

Do you find it strange to listen back to songs you wrote in the '80s, songs written in the heat of a political moment?

Billy Bragg and his band the Blokes explore and transform Woody Guthrie's legacy onstage.
Tibor Bozi
Billy Bragg and his band the Blokes explore and transform Woody Guthrie's legacy onstage.

If you listen to "Days Like These," it's very specific about the coming 1987 elections, and there's nothing I can do about that. If you're going to write polemical songs, they tend to be a snapshot. But, conversely, "I Don't Need This Pressure Ron" I sang yesterday on KCRW (a Los Angeles public-radio station), and every single word as I sang it pertains to what I'm doing now. It's a credo, rather than just a song. If you were setting out to be a political artist of any kind, I think there are things revealed in that song about the reality of trying to change the world by singing about it. It took me a while to pick up on those things. The Clash said they were going to change the world. I believed them. But the sad reality was that when it came my turn to change the world, it's not as simple as that.

In "Wishing the Days Away" you sing, "Sometimes I take a notion/ To put a torch to the tools of my trade." How does a politically committed artist avoid despair? Very little seems to change, and one wonders what good it all is.

I don't expect to see the results. I don't expect to see the world change as I ring the chimes of my songs down upon people. Someone came up to me at a gig in New York and said it was the inspiration of my songs that made him a labor lawyer now. Far be it from me to claim that people have better labor relations in New York because of me. The reality of it is that I was the soundtrack to his own efforts to make a better society. I worked very strongly with Artists Against Apartheid in the '80s, and I feel a sense of pride when I hear the new South African anthem. All that time we campaigned against nuclear weapons in Europe, to see the end of the Cold War, gives me a sense that we did achieve something. I forget who said it now, but somebody said that liberty is an eternal struggle. The question is whether you want to give of yourself. In Britain, at the moment, Tony Blair is promoting something called the "third way" between the left and the right. I don't believe that. The reason that politics are left and right is that there are people who care about the environment, and I mean that in every definition of the word, and there are people who don't give a fuck. Our job, as those who care, is that it become our agenda that society is moving toward, rather than people who don't give a fuck. It's a mighty big picture.

Billy Bragg and the Blokes perform at Mississippi Nights on Saturday, Sept. 11. Freedy Johnston opens.

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