The legendary Billy Bragg, de facto conscience of popular music in Britain and beyond, has been having one hell of a month. On October 8th he was presented with the 2007 Classic Songwriter award at Britain’s biggest and most respected music event, the Q Awards. Previous winners have included Elton John and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher.
As KT Tunstall introduced him, she said, “I wish he was my history teacher, I wish he was my big brother, I wish I could vote for him,” and as Bragg made his way to the podium, Sir Paul McCartney took him by the hand and offered congratulations as the room rose in a standing ovation. In classic Bragg style, he used his short time at the microphone to bring attention to his latest endowment, Jail Guitar Doors (www.jailguitardoors.org.uk ), which provides musical equipment for those incarcerated in the U.K.
The following morning, Bragg visited his old school in east London in support of Love Music, Hate Racism (www.lovemusichateracism.com ), a campaign created in response to evidence of record levels of racist incidents in British schools. Following reports of the use and distribution of racist music by far-right politicos in an attempt to recruit young people to the British National Party, LMHR partnered with the vastly influential music journal NME to counter these nefarious tactics and raise awareness through music. Bragg spoke of his early involvement in Rock Against Racism, and emphasized how each generation is called upon to confront discrimination in all forms.
That evening, Bragg attended a gala performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The Queen was there to preside over the re-opening of the newly refurbished arts center, and the evening culminated in what is essentially collaboration between Bragg and Beethoven: a performance of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, replete with lyrics penned by Bragg, written to commemorate the re-opening.
The Daily Mail enthused, “the politically inspired musician’s new libretto for the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – Ode to Joy – was the highlight of the splendid opening gala…and the Queen loved every minute of it.” So much so that the monarch requested a signed copy of the score from Bragg, who was happy to oblige.
Bragg has been performing a flurry of shows in the U.S over the past year, and most recently played a sold-out performance at the CMJ Music Marathon, of which the Village Voice said “it was great to see him in such a small place, as it typically is with any major artistplaying in a tiny club.”
In the 25 years Bragg has been making music, he has sought to educate, challenge and confront, all the while confounding his critics. With chart-topping singles and albums, most with a decidedly political slant, Bragg has gallantly upheld the long tradition of popular dissent, and proved that music fans respond to more than the usual mindless pop pabulum churned out by the entertainment establishment.
With a new record in the works, Bragg will start off 2008 with a brand-new collaboration, this time with the distinguished independent music label Anti-, home to other fellow agitators such as Michael Franti, Sage Francis, Mavis Staples, the Coup and Tom Waits.