MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted this reaction to the video of The National Anthem at Wednesday night’s Boston Bruins home hockey game: “Singing in big groups is incredibly cathartic.” I hope he’s right on Sunday night, which is when I will be travelling from Pennsylvania to West Virginia to see and hear Billy Bragg in concert. Yes, the audience at the Mountain Stage will not be as large as the crowd was at TD Garden, and my singing will be off-key, but the experience still promises to be an emotional one (Billy called “Great Leap Forwards” his idea of “old time religion” when he performed it at South By Southwest last month).
In case you are not familiar with his body of work, Stephen William Bragg was born 55 years ago in Barking, Essex. After failing in a punk rock band and briefly serving in the British Army, Billy released his first studio album in 1983. Thirty years later, he is still making new music (his seventeenth album, Tooth & Nail, was released last month).
But Billy Bragg is much more than a musician. Craig Ferguson, the Scottish-born American TV “Late Late Show” host, referred to Billy Bragg as “a national treasure in England.” Dorian Lynskey, author of “33 Revolutions Per Minute,” wrote: “If you ask someone to name a British protest singer, there is invariably only one response: Billy Bragg.” While he wrote his first protest song in 1983, it was not until he first performed live in support of striking UK coal miners in the fall of 1984 that Billy said began for him “a process of politicization which I had previously not undergone.” He would write the powerful “Between the Wars” in the winter of 1984.
The strike ended in the spring of 1985 with the miners’ defeat. Billy Bragg immediately moved on to the next struggle, which was to get the Labour Party back in power. His contribution to that cause, geared towards getting young people to support Labour, was to bring together like-minded musicians in Red Wedge. This revolving collective of musicians began touring throughout the UK in 1986, in advance of the June 11, 1987 general election. Although the youth vote did in fact swing to Labour, the party lost the 1987 election.
Billy’s archenemy, in both the miners’ strike and the 1987 election, was Margaret Thatcher, UK prime minister from 1979 to 1990. Thatcher died on April 8, 2013 at the age of 87, and her public funeral was held in London on Wednesday. When ABC’s “Nightline” sought a reaction to Thatcher’s death from a “recording artist from the 1980s,” they interviewed Billy Bragg. He said UK miners still felt bitterness towards Thatcher three decades later (as confirmed in the New York Times this week).
A quick look at Billy Bragg’s Twitter activity (to almost 158,000 followers) reveals a catalogue of recent progression and retrogression. His first (longer) tweet from Canada this month was partly a response to some of the reactions to Margaret Thatcher’s death that he was seeing back home:
This is not a time for celebration. The death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today. Of why ordinary working people are no longer able to earn enough from one job to support a family; of why there is a shortage of decent affordable housing; of why domestic growth is driven by credit, not by real incomes; of why tax-payers are forced to top up wages; of why a spiteful government seeks to penalise the poor for having an extra bedroom; of why Rupert Murdoch became so powerful; of why cynicism and greed became the hallmarks of our society.
Raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this. The only real antidote to cynicism is activism. Don't celebrate - organise!
But Billy also retweeted with approval (1) criticisms of the Conservative Party, who wanted the British Broadcasting Company to ban an anti-Thatcher song on the “Radio 1 Chart Show” and (2) a campaign to wear red on funeral day in protest of Thatcherism.
On the day of the Marathon bombings, Billy sent this tweet from Iowa City:
…Our thoughts are with the people of Boston. Targeting innocent civilians is always wrong.
As of my deadline, he had no tweets regarding this week’s later events in the Boston area. But he did have two retweets regarding this week’s events in Washington D.C.
First Billy retweeted this tweet from filmmaker Michael Moore:
Absolutely f&#*ing shameful Senate. Hear this, gun nuts: WE are the majority. 90% of the country disagrees with you. AND WE ARE NOT DONE.
And then there was a retweet of this tweet from aforementioned author Lynskey:
Can't pass gun laws. Won't reform the filibuster. Can't fix anything that needs fixing. What is the Senate actually for?
Permit me to end this week’s PSL on a lighter Twitter note. While researching online the last time Billy Bragg performed in Pittsburgh, I came across this May 14, 2012 tweet:
Thanks for the info Pirates fans (not you, Pittsburgh)
As my mind raced thinking of the possible slights Billy received from my city which could have prompted that comment, I checked his timeline and found this tweet earlier that day:
Speaking of small parties, anyone out there know if the Pirate Party won seats in North Rhine-Westphalia?
I should have known – the “Pittsburgh Pirates” tweet was not about sports (or touring). It was about politics!
In case this is really goodbye from Billy Bragg, I might finally have to buy that t-shirt when I’m down in Morgantown.
(Top image: CD cover image released by Essential Music for Billy Bragg's latest album, "Tooth & Nail." )