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Botkin Folklife Lectures Plus: Billy Bragg

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Head and shoulders portrait of Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg discusses his book, “Roots, Radicals and Rockers” during a Botkin Lecture Series event hosted by the American Folklife Center, July 21, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

In the Botkin Folklife Lectures Plus series, we present selected lectures in our Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lectures series that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here.) We’re continuing the series with a look at a book talk and interview with Billy Bragg, which occurred at the Library on July 21, 2017. Both videos are right here on this page–just scroll down! In case the embedded videos don’t work, at the bottom of the page are more viewing options.

Billy came to the Library of Congress to talk about his book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World. While he was here, I teamed up with the award-winning radio personality Mary Sue Twohy of Sirius/XM Radio to do a deep-dive oral history on Billy’s life and career.

Before Billy’s appearance, I wrote a substantial blog post about both his career and his book. As I noted then:

The book occupies the middle ground between music history, pop culture scholarship, and folklore. It tells the story of the skiffle music craze, which hit Britain in the mid-1950s, examining its roots in folk music and jazz, its social and cultural contexts, and its impact on later pop and folk music. The book covers major figures from Ken Colyer and Lonnie Donegan to Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl, and on to John Lennon and Jimmy Page. More importantly, it covers the throngs of regular kids who made music while pursuing other jobs and livelihoods—an approach that makes Billy Bragg a “Hidden Folklorist,” perhaps even a “Blokelorist.”

That earlier post features photos from the book and a detailed summary, as well as a primer on Bragg’s career as a prominent singer-songwriter on the British punk, folk, and pop scenes.  It’s a good teaser for the videos included here, so read it at this link!

In brief, Skiffle was a music movement in Britain in the 1950s which, among other things, put guitars in the hands of a generation of British youth, including John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, and many others. It had its roots in some of the recordings made by John and Alan Lomax and Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) for the Library of Congress in the 1930s.  For that reason, Billy was eager to talk about his book here at the Library, and AFC was proud to present his talk.  Find the video in the player below, then scroll down for the oral history.

Three people sit in chairs with a video camera filming them.
A behind-the-scenes snapshot of the oral history interview: Stephen Winick, Billy Bragg, Mary Sue Twohy. Photo by Thea Austen.

In that earlier blog post, I also introduced Billy’s career:

So just who is this Bragg fellow? He’s reinvented himself a few times over the years, so I may have to catch you up. You might know some of the hits he produced in the 1980s; his gentle teen love song “A New England” moved his own fans in 1983 when he recorded it with just his guitar, then reached an even wider audience through Kirsty MacColl’s pop arrangement a year later, which was a top-ten hit. His labor anthem “Between the Wars” got some of the same kids thinking about politics and justice, when he sang it on the TV show Top of the Pops in 1985. Continuing to write an equal mix of tortured love songs and polemical barn-burners, he captured the energy, idealism, and angst of youth in 1980s Britain. He was even sometimes called the “spokesman for his generation,” which he famously quipped was “the worst job I ever had.” [1]

You might also remember Bragg’s deep involvement with the Woody Guthrie legacy, which came about when Woody’s daughter Nora had the inspiration to ask Bragg, along with the band Wilco, to write music for some of Guthrie’s unsung lyrics. That ultimately resulted in the three CDs of the Mermaid Avenue Sessions, as well as the documentary film Man in the Sand. Or you might have followed his career since then, during which he’s released thoughtful albums like William Bloke and England, Half English, as well as more polemical ones like  Tooth & Nail and the compilation Fight Songs. If you’re a folk traditionalist, you might even know his work with the British folk-rock band The Imagined Village, which placed Bragg and other punk icons like Paul Weller alongside more traditional folk musicians in a folk-rock/electronica context.

Mary Sue and I covered all these topics and more in the oral history interview, which was wide-ranging and fun.  Find the video in the player below!

More viewing options

You can find both of these videos with more bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website, with the lecture here at this link and the oral history at this link. You can also find them on YouTube, with the lecture here at this link and the oral history at this link.

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