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

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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!



  1. Thanks for sharing the recollection. It confirms the power of song, and Billy Bragg’s skillful way of using it as a tool of healing, unity and solidarity.

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