billy bragg

Sitting in a Washington, D.C., hotel room one week before the presidential election, Billy Bragg is very afraid.

Is the outspoken leftist singer-songwriter worried about the outcome of the election? About the results of the World Series (however much he quibbles with its claim to represent the whole world)? About the angry e-mail he got from a John McCain supporter who came to his show Monday?

No. Bragg is haunted by a figure from his native England's recent past.

"I'm in shock," he says in his trademark Cockney brogue. "I've just seen some footage [on television] of Margaret Thatcher alive and moving about. It's terrifying."

It's not surprising that Bragg is nervous about seeing the Iron Lady. Being a socialist, trade-unionist singer during Thatcher's heyday surely wasn't for the faint of heart-not that Bragg's ever been weak-kneed about his convictions.

He's been making political music-with healthy doses of other music, too-for three decades, including, as he puts it, when it wasn't "fashionable." He is certain to deliver a political message in his concert at Saturday as part of Duke Performances' Art/Politics/Now series, focusing on political music's role in contemporary society.

"The audiences are pretty charged up at the shows, wherever we've been-not just in urban areas but places like State College in Pennsylvania and Ithaca, New York," he says. "I'm kind of picking up on that, getting carried away myself."

It's also not surprising that Bragg supports Barack Obama-although he worries that, as happened with Tony Blair, high expectations may fuel disappointment down the road.

"People are going to have to hold on to how historical it is to have a black president," he says. "It's going to be tough, it's not going to be easy, but if Obama is elected, we will live in a world of possibilities starting November 5."

As an Englishman, Bragg realizes his somewhat tenuous position. When Canadian-born Neil Young, a longtime U.S. resident but not citizen, released a Bush-bashing record in 2006, he was harshly criticized by the right. Bragg couches his political speech in terms of the international perspective.

"Obviously, I would like to see a change after the last eight years," he says. "I think the candidacy of Barack Obama is important, but it's not really my place to tell people to go out and vote for him. As a foreigner I have a view to give. There's a lot of anti-Americanism out there, most of it knee-jerk. Electing a black person would be a great way to... set a new precedent."

But even if the Democrat is elected, Bragg isn't concerned about the health of his craft, with plenty of subject material on the horizon. "If you look at the economic situation, we'll be writing Woody Guthrie-type songs," he says.

But political songwriters will face additional challenges in getting their message out, he says. Bragg himself jumped to an independent label for his latest release, Mr. Love and Justice, after his longtime major label, Elektra, ceased to exist.

"I think if you look at the music industry, the challenge is to make sure the next Billy Bragg-or Wendy Bragg-is able to have a career," he says, adding that artists will have to rely on carefully targeted tours and word-of-mouth coverage through blogs instead of just signing with an American label and getting them to finance a tour, as he was able to do early in his career.

An impassioned advocate of political music, Bragg says he hopes to inspire younger generations to take up guitars, pianos and microphones to make their voices heard.

"Music can offer a different prospect and challenge people's assumptions," he says. "That's what I aspire to every night-I think, 'There might be someone out there tonight who I can help to give the tools to go home and mount their own argument.'"

But Bragg has also strived for balance throughout his career-a balance reflected in the title of Mr. Love and Justice, his first record in six years. After a 2002 album focused on the meaning of Englishness, Bragg took time to write a book about racism and identity politics, particularly the rise of the far-right in East London.

"It was a polemical outpouring over a three-year period," he says. "And when I started writing songs again, the songs that I wrote were predominantly love songs."

Perhaps that worked too well-the angry McCain supporter had come to a New York City show expecting the softer side of Bragg, only to get a political broadside. That's likely to be the case Saturday night, too.

But does Duke Performances' booking Bragg immediately before the election constitute an implicit endorsement of Barack Obama? Not so much, says Director Aaron Greenwald.

"What does a political artist have to offer an audience that already agrees with them?" he asks. "What I'm interested in is how Billy has been an effective political songwriter for nearly three decades now. I don't think we are endorsing Barack Obama. Maybe Barack Obama is way too centrist for Billy Bragg."

To read more of Bragg's interview with David Graham, see

Billy Bragg appears at 8 p.m. Saturday in Page Auditorium with the Watson Twins. Tickets are $5 for students, $20-34 for others.


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