Interview: Why Billy Bragg joined the army!

Billy Bragg may be an English icon but it's a long time since he was the leftie folk-punk singer of legend.

Friday, 20th January 2017, 3:50 pm
Updated Friday, 20th January 2017, 3:52 pm
Billy Bragg.

It’s something he long ago outgrew, as audiences on his current UK tour with award-winning American singer-songwriter Joe Henry are learning.His latest tour, which arrives at York Opera House next Tuesday, January 24, is promoting Shine a Light, a collection of railroad-influenced songs including Leadbelly's Midnight Special and Lonnie Donegan's Rock Island Line, though both Bragg and Henry get their own solo spots, too.Bragg 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 and how many skiffle songs related to the railroads.”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.

Meeting the Queen

The cover of Billy Bragg's breakthrough mini album Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy in the early 1980s.

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.”

Recording on the (rail) road

Despite being as English as a muffin, Bragg's new album is as American as apple pie.It's also unusual in not being recorded in the studio but being done on the road, the railroad, that is, in a series of waiting rooms and platforms during an epic 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.

Bragg joins the army!It's hard now to believe that the man who was prominent in the Red Wedge tour against Thatcher in the 1980s, and is currently a fan of Jeremy Corbyn, 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."

The cover of Billy Bragg's breakthrough mini album Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy in the early 1980s.

Eclectic choice of songsBragg refuses to conform to any stereotype. Even his choice of railroad songs on Shine a Light is stretched somewhat to include his own version of Beethoven's Ode To Joy and John Hartford’s Gentle on My Mind (a pop hit for Glen Campbell).Bragg said: "We didn't want the whole album to be about nostalgia, we wanted some songs from the pop period."When it came to Gentle on My Mind, me and Joe were goofing around and realised the song is writtem from the perspective of a hobo by the railroad tracks."Being English allows me to bring a different eye to a different culture. I don't think an American would have the same perspective about the railways these days."

Currying favour with John PeelWithout the support of the late John Peel, it's doubtful Bragg would be where he is now.Mind you, it took a bit of cheek by the young Bragg to get the legendary broadcaster's attention.Bragg said: "I was playing football with my mates in Hyde Park, having a few beers and listening to John Peel's show on Radio One."He said on the air that he would do anything for a biryani so I stopped playing, quickly got out of my football kit and went and got him one."When I turned up at the BBC they thought I was a delivery boy. But he did play a track from Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy that night."

Change of direction into AmericanaBy the early 90s, Bragg had left those days behind and 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.As the decade progressed, 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. 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.