Billy Bragg performing at Crescent Ballroom in 2013.
Billy Bragg performing at Crescent Ballroom in 2013.
Melissa Fossum

Billy Bragg Is the Folk Punk You're Looking For

If these troubled political times are gnawing at you and you need an advocate, it’s time to get up to speed on folk legend Billy Bragg. Born in England in 1957, Bragg has been making music since the late 1970s, when he started playing punk and bar rock.

Activism started to come into play when he saw The Clash at a Rock Against Racism concert. It was an eye-opener that led him down a path to fight against human injustice. And he hasn’t stopped. The roots-oriented singer and songwriter blends folk and country sounds to deliver his heartfelt tunes.

He released his latest solo effort, Tooth and Nail, in 2013. And now he’s focused on putting out a new single each month until December. It’s an effort to be timely and to speak on the current political state of affairs both in the U.S. and in his homeland.

The newest of these singles, “Sleep of Reason,” is a haunting song inspired by recent events in Charlottesville, North Carolina, and by a particular protester — a British Asian woman who stood up to protesters in England earlier this year.

“One of the songs coming out in the next couple months is about how truth has become completely devalued,” Bragg says. “The thing people want to be true, that’s the most popular, becomes truth. And it doesn’t matter if it’s based on fact or not. If it gets enough likes, if enough people cheer for it, then it’s valid. Facts are just opinions now, they’re not really based on actual scientific ideas.”

He feels like a “war on empathy” is guiding a lot of the division that’s been happening since the presidential election. “My sense of it is that anyone who expresses compassion for others, particularly those who are marginalized or in a position of weakness, are to be dismissed,” says Bragg.

That hits him hard as a human and a musician.

“Empathy is the basis for solidarity, and those who want to keep people divided are concerned about solidarity,” he says. “It’s shocking. And for a musician, it’s difficult and annoying because in many ways, empathy is our currency. By making music, it is how we articulate our ideas.”

In September, Bragg was nominated along with country singer/songwriter and producer Joe Henry as Best Duo at the Americana Music Association’s Awards and Honors ceremony. In 2016, the two boarded a Los Angeles-bound train from Chicago and spent time recording tunes throughout the trip. Bragg says he’s honored to be nominated, but he isn’t focused on winning. “It’s just nice to be nominated,” he says, “and to share the stage with performers like John Prine and Iris DeMent.”

It’s been a busy year for Bragg. He also released a book in July called Roots, Rockers, and Radicals: How Skiffle Changed the World. Unfamiliar? Bragg describes skiffle as the “movement that brought guitar to British pop music, and had boys picking up the guitar at young ages, like 12 to 14, playing Leadbelly’s repertoire.” His book explores how this ultimately led to the British Invasion in the United States.

For his current tour, Bragg’s doing what he calls “Classic Bragg,” or “Bash ‘em Out Bragg.” It’s a show running about two hours in length that is just him with an electric guitar. He’ll play oldies, new songs, and “maybe a train song or two — wherever the night takes me, really.”

Billy Bragg is scheduled to perform at Crescent Ballroom on Wednesday, October 11. Tickets to the 21-and-over show are $29.50 to $45 via crescentphx.com.

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