It’s hard to think of a performer who is as quintessentially English as Billy Bragg, that singer of Jerusalem, and vociferous purveyor of ‘progressive patriotism’. So what, I ask him down the phone, is he doing performing at the Black Deer Americana and Country Music Festival?
“Americana is country music for Smiths fans,” he quips. “It’s what we used to call singer-songwriting. But singer-songwriters in cowboy boots, and shirts with pearl-snap buttons. I fit in because I made an album of Woody Guthrie songs, with [American band] Wilco, who had a role in founding the alt.country thing. I qualify as an in-law, if you like.”
He even changed his accent, for the part. “With the Woody Guthrie songs I found it was impossible to sing his songs in my accent, so I kind of leaned over a little bit more to that mid-Atlantic twang and I’ve found since then that I go in and out of it depending on what song it is and what the nature of it is.
“Americana isn’t something that is geo-specific,” he adds. “You can be an Americana artist anywhere if you were influenced by the Roots music of America. Think about the first Beatles album: what would that have sounded like if they’d only played English music and only worn English clothes? It would have been pretty boring, wouldn’t it? Everyone knew they were inspired by the music of black America.”
Like Woody Guthrie, Bragg has been labelled a ‘protest singer’, a term he’s not entirely comfortable with, as he finds it ‘pigeon-holing’. “I’d rather you put me down as a dissenter,” he says. “In fact I would argue that dissent is the tradition that defines the English.” Tom Paine comes up in the conversation. Bragg cites the 18th-century English activist in the pamphlet he’s recently written for Faber & Faber, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, describing him as ‘the greatest revolutionary England ever produced’. “I wish he’d been born 150 years before so he could have written his pamphlet and given it to the New Model Army at Naseby: then we may have had a republic that lasted,” he says. Instead, of course, he helped the United States of America to become one.
Bragg’s sets have always been punctuated by political diatribes, and he’s going to make no exception to this practice, he says, at the Black Deer Festival. He’ll not decide on his set until the day of the performance. “When I arrive at a festival I have a long walk around the site. I try and suss out the audience… are they soaking wet, are they pissed off, are they chilled out? Then I decide how I pitch the set to them.”
So will he ‘countrify’ himself up, I wonder, to fit in with the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Hayseed Dixie, also on the line-up? “I won’t be wearing cowboy boots,” he says, “but I will undoubtedly have a shirt with pearl-snap buttons on it.”
Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
Eridge Park, 21-23 June, blackdeerfestival.com