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A Bonus Story: Billy Bragg and the Healing Power of Folksong

Billy Bragg with part of the team that produced his Botkin lecture on July 21, 2017. In the front are Jennifer Cutting, Billy Bragg, and Theadocia Austen. The guy in the back is Stephen Winick! The photo is by John Fenn.

In late July, the American Folklife center was privileged to host a book talk by Billy Bragg, who spoke about his book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World.  A new blog post over on the Library of Congress blog tells the story of how we came to get the well known English singer/ songwriter to come to the Library. For that post, I was interviewed by Wendi Maloney of the Library’s Office of Communications, who did a great job on the post–please read it at this link!

Just for length’s sake, Wendi had to cut out one of the stories I told in our interview. It was a story I had wanted to tell in my own “Hidden Folklorists” blog post on Billy, but frankly I couldn’t be sure it was really true. In 30-year hindsight it seemed unlikely that I had remembered the event correctly. Perhaps it was some other performer, or perhaps I had dreamed it. When Billy was here I confirmed with him that this really happened.  So here it is, one small bonus story about Billy Bragg, a personal recollection of my own from an event about 30 years ago:

One of the events that made a big impression on me in the 1980s happened at one of Billy’s concerts that I went to in New York. At that time, there was a lot of political violence going on in Northern Ireland, and there were a lot of Irish people in New York, so political feelings were high. Billy found himself being heckled by Irish people in the audience, mostly just for being English. Rather than getting angry, he told them how much he sympathized with them. To prove it he sang a traditional Irish ballad in the old, unaccompanied style. It’s a song called “The Croppy Boy,” and the narrator is a young Irish revolutionary in the 1798 rebellion. He is betrayed by his sister, denied by his father, and hanged for his actions. Billy’s rendition of the song highlighted the bitter divisions that have often existed in Ireland around the political situation that was still causing pain in the 1980s. At the same time, it expressed clear sympathies for the young revolutionary, with the ending ‘come all good people who do pass by, and shed a tear for the Croppy Boy.’

After the song, every Irish person in the house was on Billy’s side, and they knew he was on theirs. It was a great lesson to me about how these songs speak to us through time. The song was almost 200 years old, but it healed a rift in that room, right before my eyes.

As an added bonus, the Library has three neat old broadsides of “The Croppy Boy” online. One of them is above right, and all three of them are at this link.

Finally, this post allows us to announce that the video of Billy Bragg’s talk is now available here on the Library’s website. We hope you have a chance to watch it!


Passed Censor

The following is a guest post by Justina Moloney, a Library of Congress Junior Fellow who worked with the Veterans History Project (VHP) this summer. Correspondence, be it analog or email, is a running theme within the collections of the Veterans History Project. Of the nine World War I collections I worked with this summer, […]

AFC’s Occupational Folklife Project Goes Online with “Working the Port of Houston” Collection

The following is a guest post by Nancy Groce, Senior Folklife Specialist and Director of the Occupational Folklife Project. After seven years of planning, research, fieldwork, and archiving, the American Folklife Center is delighted to announce that the first installment of its Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) launches today on the Library of Congress’s website with […]

“Hal An Tow”: Some Intriguing Evidence on a May Song

It’s May 6, and the people of Helston, Cornwall, are celebrating Flora Day [1], a large outdoor festival featuring dancing in the streets throughout the town [2].  One of the fascinating elements of the festivities is the “Hal An Tow” procession, featuring dramatic enactments, dancing, and a distinctive song, also called “Hal An Tow.” Three […]

A Q&A with new staff folklorist-archivist Kelly Revak

Kelly Revak is a new processing archivist at the American Folklife Center. She has a master’s degree in folklore and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. Cumulatively, she has 20 years of experience in archives, including 7 years in various capacities at the Berkeley Folklore Archive. Since starting her job […]

Urban Folklife, Urban Artistry: breaking down the complexities of urban dance with Junious Brickhouse

The following is a guest post from AFC folklife specialist Michelle Stefano. On February 22 at noon, the Library of Congress will host the talented dancers of Urban Artistry, Inc. in the Coolidge Auditorium as part of the Homegrown Concert Series of the American Folklife Center. Audience members are in for a treat: three rounds […]

Fake News, Folk News, and the Fate of Far Away Moses

Note: this is the fifth, and probably the last, post on Folklife Today concerning Far Away Moses, a nineteenth century Jewish guide and merchant whose face was the model for one of the “keystone heads” sculpted in stone on the outside of the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson building. For the other posts about Moses, […]

AFC Welcomes John Fenn, New Head of Research & Programs

The American Folklife Center is pleased to welcome John B. Fenn III as the Head of the Research and Programs section.  Fenn will be supervising the members of our staff involved in public programming, publications, research, and training in the field of folklife. John Fenn’s academic training is in folklore and ethnomusicology (Ph.D., Indiana University, […]

Finding aid to Eleanor Dickinson fieldwork collection now online

The following is a guest post from AFC processing archivist Marcia Segal. The remarkable audio and video recordings in the Eleanor Dickinson collection (AFC 1970/001), recorded circa 1969-1980, capture a moment in time in the years before the Internet and other technological developments changed the way people communicate. The immediacy of religious services, (uninterrupted by […]