Interview: Billy Bragg - from meeting The Queen to US railroad songs

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry.
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry.

The last time Billy Bragg’s path crossed with Harrogate’s he was still the earnest nasal-voiced leftie folk-punk singer of legend.

But it’s a persona he outgrew long ago, as audiences on his current UK tour with dapper American singer-songwriter Joe Henry are learning.

Billy Bragg.

Billy Bragg.

Having enjoyed pop hits, won a slew of awards in the USA for his collaborations with the likes of Wilco and albums reinterpretating the work of Woody Guthrie, the Essex-born Bragg himself is tired of the clichés.

Which is why he agreed to meet The Queen a few years back, something to do with Festival Hall and school choirs, don’t ask.

Bragg, 59, said: “I don’t mind being a political songwriter at times but I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as one.

“One of the things when you’re Billy Bragg is you have to surprise people. That’s part of the reason I shook hands with The Queen.”

Billy Bragg shook hands with The Queen, I reply, in a surprised manner.

“The way I thought of it when I shook her hand was “I’m shaking the hand which gave Bobby Moore the World Cup in 1966.”

His latest tour is theoretically to promote Shine a Light, a collection of railroad-influenced songs down the ages from Leadbelly to Hank Williams to Glen Campbell, though both Bragg and Henry get their own spots for a ride through their extensive back catalogues.

Despite being an English cultural and political icon, the new album is as American as apple pie, recorded by Bragg with Henry at a series of waiting rooms and platforms during a 2,728-mile railway trip from Chicago to LA.

Billy said: “The idea came from a book I’ve been working on for a couple of years about how British music went from jazz bands to guitar-based bands.

“I realised how important skiffle was in the whole transformation and how many skiffle songs related to the railways and not just Rock Island Line.

“In American now he railways have declined so much they’re just about forgotten. There was only one train from Chicago to San Antonio a day.

“I wanted to take the songs back to where they came from, to reconnect them with the rail line itself.”

The reward for their passion for the project came when Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad reached number 28 in the UK album charts and number one in the UK Americana charts.

It's hard now to believe that the man who was prominent in the Red Wedge tour against Thatcher in the 1980s once joined the army as a teenager straight from Secondary Modern in the days when the working classes didn't usually go to university.

Unsurprisingly, he lasted only a few months before he bought himself out.

Bragg said: "When I was at school growing up everyone worked at the Ford Motor Company nearby.

"At the last year at school I was taken round the factory. I didn't fancy it.

"Joining the army was the only way to escape. I told them when I joined that I didn't believe in what was happening in Northern Ireland so they put me in the tank division of the Irish regiment.

"They didn't get sent to Ireland but it wasn't for me. The experience made me want to write songs more."

Bragg's debut album Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy released in 1983 set the template for the rest of the early part of his career, though one track, the classic A New England, did sign post this was a musician who, perhaps, should never have been defined so narrowly.

By the early 90s, he was enjoying hits like Sexuality which, apart from featuring the guitar of Johnny Marr and backing vocals by Kirsty MacColl, was even slightly, well, funky.

By the mid-90s there came another switch when Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie, asked Bragg to write music to some of her father's unrecorded lyrics to music.

This Essex man's feel for Americana resulted in several awards in the USA.

Since then Bragg's journey has branched out in new directions at every turn, hence Shine a Light and his collaboration with Joe Henry, whose produced three Grammy Award-winning albums in his time.

The pair of them went to any lengths necessary to make the project a success.

One of the tracks on the album was even recorded in the exact room in the exact hotel where Robert Johnson had his first recording session.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry play York Opera House on Tuesday, January 24.