Billy Bragg Oral History

Billy Bragg Oral History


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Stephen Winick: Hello. My name is Stephen Winick
and we’re here at the Library of Congress where we will
be interviewing Billy Bragg. I should also introduce
my co-interviewer. This is Mary Sue Twohy
of SiriusXM Radio.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Thank you.>>Stephen Winick:
So, Billy you’re here because you have written a book
about skiffle and so we’re going to talk a bit about
folk music and skiffle and their interrelations. So, I’m going to start
out by, by mentioning that I’m pretty sure that back in the 80s I saw you perform
some traditional songs in your sets way back then. So, when did you first become
aware of traditional song and did you always
incorporate them into your gigs a little bit?>>Billy Bragg: Well,
I became aware of a traditional
song [inaudible]. I was really into Simon and
Garfunkel when I was like 12 or 13 and they kind
of introduced me to “Scarborough Fair” which
is an English folksong; two guys from Brooklyn.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: We’re going to
get a lot of that stuff I think, um and that kind of led
me to sort of dealing with other American
singer-songwriters, but I was always aware that
they had drawn some inspiration from British folk music. In 1973 or 4, our local
library had a record section and it was predominantly
classical music, but they had a lot of album
samplers from the Topic label. Topic it was just a
great British folk label from the 1930s. It was originally the
Communist Party record label. It was a worker’s record label and what they did was
they anthologized folks from a surrounded theme, so
they would have war, work, the sea you know, and I sort of
avidly listened to these songs and so that introduced
me to people like Shirley and Dolly Collins, The
Watersons, Bert Lloyd and so I kind of then had a
sort of knowledge of folk music, but when punk happened
in 1977 being year zero.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: All that
kind of went out the window until in 1984 when the
coalminers were on strike for a year, because I was a sort
of performer, I was able to go into the coal fields
and do gigs. On the very first shows
that I did up in Sunderland, there was an old guy named
Jock Purdon an old miner, retired miner who soundstage,
who was opening for me, soundstages hand cupped over
his ear and his songs were so much more radical than mine and I felt a bit embarrassed
really, because I’m supposed, you know, I’m the little
punk rocker and everything, you know, come up here. And I felt really embarrassed
about it and he was so kind to me, because what he said
explicitly to me was that, you know, whatever
my relationship to this material now that I’ve
done a gig for the miners, I was part of this tradition and
that’s the way it’s always been. I mean, you know, since
then I’ve always thought of myself I’m not of the
tradition clearly, but I am part of it and I, I kind of went back
to those records that I knew and those songs I remembered and
started to bring that influence into my own songwriting. The first example of that
would be “Between the Wars”, and that kind of became the
defining, the song got me in the charts right
on top of the pops, so it was the miner’s strike
really that reconnected me with my own traditional music.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah. That’s great. Although, I should say
many people noticed that the beginning of “A New England” sounds
suspiciously like Paul Simon.>>Billy Bragg: Well, I may
have borrowed those two lines, but in my defense, I
started writing that song when I was 21 years old
and then I came back to it when I was 22, so.>>Stephen Winick:
So, it defines.>>Billy Bragg: At the
time, it made a lot of sense and also I didn’t realize
that Kirsty MacColl was going to have a top ten hit with
it and make it famous. I just thought it would be
some obscure little song that I played at parties,
so that’s my defense, and [inaudible] harmonies
too, he spoke to me about that and he was pretty cool with
it, so I think I got away it.>>Stephen Winick: Great.>>Mary Sue Twohy: So, as you
referenced you’re involvement with punk, how did you
actually get started in punk? How did that leap happen?>>Billy Bragg: Well, in the
summer of 1977, I might be, it must have been
earlier than that, it must have been summer
1976; the summer of 1976, there was something
going on the UK, yeah, there was a band called
Dr. Feelgood who were kind of playing sort of
maximum R and B and had a lead guitar player
called Wilko Johnson who looked like the sort of
kid at my school that would get beat
up all the time. You know, he had sort
of a weird haircut and he had his top bandana up, but he was cool,
somehow he was cool. How is this geeky looking
bloke incredibly cool? And in some way it was like
a, it was like a precursor of punk rock, because
within 12 months lots of unprepossessing blokes like
Elvis Costello, and Ian Dury and Johnny Rotten, and Joe
Strummer were suddenly cool. So, there was hope
for all of us. And what happened was
that summer I was playing in a little band with my mates
in our parent’s backrooms and we went out and bought
the first Who record, the first Stones record, and
the first Small Faces record and we kind of getting, sort
of trying to aim for that sort of sound and then we heard
The Jam who were kind of right in that nexus but they were our
age which just blew our minds. So, we went to see The Jam play in a little pub called
Nashville Rooms and in shows the Rainbows a
sort of prime London rock place where we’ve been to see, we’d seen the Small Faces
there the year before; the Small Faces revival, but
they were playing with The Clash and we went along to that
gig really extensively to see The Jam, but The
Clash just blew us away because they were,
they were our age.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: And they were
doing all the things we liked about the Stones, and the
Small Faces, and The Who, so it kind of a catalytic
moment. We had been to see the
Stones and The Who that year and the Stones were I’ll just
call, it was this massive array and it was the first proper
arena show in the UK and The Who played at a giant
football club. It was like, you know, they were
miles away and here was The Jam and The Clash not only
physically close to us, but close to us culturally
as well and I think that was a catalyst. You know, I went home and gave
away all of my Eagles albums, cut my hair, and bought a pair of plastic trousers
[brief laughter].>>Mary Sue Twohy: That simple.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, it didn’t
really change my songwriting much, but it was that straightforward
in those days, yeah.>>Stephen Winick: So, it was
the miner’s strike that got you to do political songs
though specifically?>>Billy Bragg: No. Well, I think I was
doing political songs. I think punk was
quite political. The political side of punk
I had always been into. The first political activism
I was a part in was this Rock Against Racism and
that was in 78. So, I was clearly at a kind of what you might call
personal politics I suppose. What’s significant about
the miner’s strike that got to my songwriting is it turns me
into an ideological songwriter, because at the same time this
miner strike happens in 1984, I come to America
for the first time. Now, in the UK people had seen
me on my own playing guitar. They call me a one man
clash and, you know, in American people compared
me to Woody Guthrie.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: Woody
Guthrie I knew. Woody Guthrie was, of
course, a big [inaudible] fan, but it was very difficult
to find Woody’s records in where I lived anyway
in London in the 70s. Eventually, to just to
hear what he sounded like I eventually managed
to track down a cassette on the Disk du Monde [phonetic];
the French Disk du Monde, well they even spelled
his name wrong. On the cover the spelled his
name with “ie” Woodie with an “ie”, and there was no
details just a track. So, and I can remember playing
it and it sounded so primal that I thought I can’t
do this, this is awful. This is before punk.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: So, when I
came to the United States of America was; one of the most
amazing things about coming to the United States of
America was record shops, because there’s so much great
music that you don’t get in English record
shops and, of course, there were Woody’s records. So, I was able to now
buy Woody’s records and buy perhaps the greatest
of all of his records which is the Library of
Congress recordings they did for Alan Lomax in I
think 1941 I think; that really where Woody’s just
sitting there talking weirdly similar to what we’re
doing now Stephen.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: It’s
just occurred to me.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: It’s
a bit strange.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah. Well, some of, some of that was
done in this suite of rooms.>>Billy Bragg: Yes.>>Stephen Winick:
Although, some of it was done in a different building.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, yeah
I mean that’s, that’s just.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: That
just occurred to me there for a second. So, but yeah that, that those
recordings really helped me to understand Woody, but also
I also came across “Joe Hill.” I had never across this,
I didn’t know anything about Joan whatsoever and I think I bought
Utah Phillips’ album, “You Have Fed Us; We Have Fed
You All For A Thousand Years.” What a great record that is.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: And I think that
has “There Is Power in a Union” on it, and I took that home
and in the midst of the strike, I needed to write a union song
and I was familiar with the song of the Americas “Rally
‘Round the Flag” which Ry Cooder had recorded
for the “Long Riders” soundtrack and I sort of borrowed
the tune from that. The chorus of that song is “the union forever,
hurrah, boys hurrah.” So, I borrowed that tune; I
borrowed Joe Hill’s title “Power In A Union” and I wrote a
new set of lyrics for that, so and was elated, I was very
happy to find subsequently that the tune for “Rally
‘Round the Flag” was stolen from an English hymn. So once again, what goes
around comes around.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Exactly.>>Stephen Winick:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.>>Billy Bragg: We’re
going to say that a lot in this conversation I feel.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah. I guess another example of that
is that, is that much later in your career you were
approached by Nora Guthrie and the Guthrie family to
write music to Woody’s lyrics, so how did that come about?>>Billy Bragg: Well, that
came about I was doing a gig in Central Park for Woody’s
90th birthday with Pete Seeger and Arlo, and the Disposable
Heroes of Hyphoprisy.” I had had a few run-ins with
the Guthrie legend before. One of the most daunting
moments that I ever faced as a performer was at the
Vancouver Folk Festival in 1987 where I had been asked
if I would be interested to do a Woody Guthrie
workshop, you know, a workshop is a workshop you
know where 3 or 4 artists sit around and are taking turns to
play songs and there’s a theme. And I thought, you know,
you have to play 3 songs, so I thought I know
3 Woody songs and hard can that be, you know? I didn’t think any more
about it until the day. And when I got there, the other
3 participants were Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Uh-oh.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, I suddenly
though I am so busted here. If any of these played
the 3 songs on our office, but Jack who sat next to
me on top of his guitar, on top of the body of his guitar
he had a bit of papers taped on it with loads of Woody
titles which I suppose was like having a memoire for him. So, I was looking at them,
“Oh yeah, I know that one”, you know, because you
know them most distinctly because you’ve listened to all
of those, “Oh, yeah, yeah.” So, I kind of got away with it. I got away with it until old
mad Seeger stood up at the end like a sort of tall
redwood tree and began in his beautiful clear
tone began singing “This Land is Your Land”
and then he threw it to Arlo for the next verse and I thought
uh-oh and then he threw it to Jack, it’s getting closer
to me and I’m like this is it, so I just had to say
look I’m really sorry that we don’t sing
this in England, this land ain’t my land
clearly and I apologized. And I think Nora took pity on
me and by inviting me to come and look at the songs
in the archives she kind of brought me into the family. It was a really amazing
experience, because not only was Nora
there with the archivists, with at the time
2000 complete lyrics that Woody had written as songs. The only reason nobody had
played them was because, like myself, Woody didn’t
write musical notation.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: When
he writes to sing; if I write a song what you get
is a piece of paper with words on it, the words they rhyme and
they have a meaning to them, you know, but you, there’s
no hint of what the tune is because I’ve got here. It’s easy to me, because I
always record it on my computer. So, you know, but for Woody
he only actually recorded 10% of the songs he wrote. So, all of these songs were
languishing in files waiting to be brought back to life,
and Nora’s genius idea was to bring some people
in to do that.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: But it wasn’t
just Nora, because also in the office was, was a Woody’s
old manager Harold Leventhal.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: And the
thing about Harold was because he was there, if I found
a lyric referring to something that happened in the 30s,
I can go in to see Harold and he could explain to
me what the context was.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Oh.>>Billy Bragg: You know, I
found a song about Hanns Eisler who was the guy who wrote the
East German National Anthem; that’s all I know. And I’m like, why is
Woody writing a song about Hanns Eisler? So, I go in to see Harold and he tells me this
incredible story verse, each of the verses
there’s another note of Eisler’s brother
was the Comintern agent in Hollywood in the 1940s. and their sister betrayed them to the House Un-American
Activities Committee and another character was
Dixiecrat senator who was, you know, pushing this kind of
what man had really pugrum on, you know, Jewish-American
intellectuals. I mean, the whole thing
just came out of Harold and this song, it was just an
incredible, incredible privilege to sit and talk to him
and all he ever asked me to do was whenever I came
he asked to bring him a copy of the British Communist
newspaper The Morning Star.>>Stephen Winick: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: Now I don’t
know if he was like testing me or anything, but and it
wasn’t easy to find either. You can’t find it everywhere
only particular shops, but I always tried
to find a copy of it and he would always
ask me about, you know, what’s happening with
the Communist Party, “I’m not that, Harold
it’s like.” It’s [inaudible], but he was
an amazing, amazing character. He was the cofounder of
the Newport Folk Festival and he had a huge, huge
history and he had been a, he’d been a song-plugger
for Irving Berlin.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: There’s a
picture on the wall behind him of him with like a 19-year-old
Frank Sinatra in the 1940s. The skinniest Frank Sinatra
you have ever seen in this suit that like was drowning him
and so Harold was like a, was one of the, he was just
a, it was a real privilege to have sat and talked to
him and listen to him talk; amazing guy, amazing guy.>>Mary Sue Twohy: So,
you spoke of Pete Seeger and when we saw you at the
Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City,
you referenced Pete Seeger. What is your relationship
with him?>>Billy Bragg: Well, I
think Pete is the person who really first probably
connected me to Woody, you know.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Nice.>>Billy Bragg: He, he,
I first encountered him in East Germany actually at a political folk song
festival there in 1987.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: A peace
concert and he was, you know, he was aware of who I was. I’m not sure he knew much
of my material, but again, he was someone else who
always encouraged me to write political songs. At another folk festival
in Vancouver in 89, just after Tiananmen
Square had happened, I was in the artist’s chow tent
and uncle Pete came and sat down and said, “Listen I want, I’m going to finish my set
tomorrow night on the mainstage by singing “The Internationale”
to Ireland in respect to the students who
had been singing it in the Tiananmen Square, and he
said and Bruce Cockburn is going to come sing the Canadian
version, someone is going to come sing the Mexican
version, I’d like you to come and sing the British
version Billy.” I was like “Oh, Pete
give me a break mate.” The lyrics, the lyrics
are “Arise, ye starvelings from your slumbers/arise you
criminals of want/for reason and revolt now thunders/and
here ends the age of can’t.” I said, “Pete, it doesn’t
even rhyme”, you know. So, he said “Well, maybe you
should just write a new verse.” And in folk music there’s
some people you can’t tell to “piss off” and uncle
Pete is one of them. So, before I had even had a
chance to say [inaudible] Pete, rewrite “The Internationale”
he found a flier, there actually was a
flier by a demonstration in [inaudible] Square. He got a pencil and he closed
his eyes and he began singing under his breath the
original French lyrics; “C’est la lutte finale”
and he would write down verbatim the first verse
and chorus, said “There you go. You got 24 hours.” Like I said, you can’t
really say it’s like humbug from a professor sulk. I wrote a verse and a chorus
and I came back and I sang it and it was all good, and
then the Berlin Wall had come down the same year and,
and all of our sort of leftwing culture was
being put in the a skip out in the back, everything. Not just the bad stuff
that guiding it was stuff that was tarnished
with totalitarianism, but the good stuff was
kind of skip as well. So I thought well maybe
I should write, you know, rewrite “The Internationale”
and record it. Maybe that’s what, so I– I wrote small verses and I
sent them to Pete and I went to see Ewan MacColl and Peggy
and sort of said something “I’ve written these
versus what do you think?” And I recorded and put it out
on an album in 1990 and now if you get the IWW little
red songbook, my version is in there next to the original.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Right on.>>Billy Bragg: Isn’t
that incredible?>>Stephen Winick:
That’s amazing.>>Mary Sue Twohy: That’s great.>>Billy Bragg: It’s uncle Pete. That’s Pete. You can’t say no to Pete Seeger.>>Stephen Winick: So, as I
mentioned one of the reasons that we’re interviewing
you is your book on skiffle and you talked before the
interview about how skiffle kind of throws the American
audience people and this country don’t
really know what skiffle is. So, give us a little
introduction. What is skiffle and what led
you to become interested in it?>>Billy Bragg: Well, the 140
characters answer that question, is skiffle is basically
American, a British school boys in the 1950s playing Lead
Belly songs basically.>>Stephen Winick: Alright.>>Billy Bragg: What
it represents, it represents the
introduction of the guitar into British pop
culture and it’s among when our pop music goes from
being a jazz-based confection for grownups in which anyone
who’s not a grownup is offered novelty songs like “How Much
is That Doggy in the Window?” It changes from that to being a
guitar led music for teenagers, and skiffle, the catalyst for this is a guy named Lonnie
Donegan who has a hit in 1956 with a version of Lead
Belly’s “Rock Island Line.” Now, Donegan is the banjo
player in a trad jazz band, the Chris Barber Jazz Band and
he records “Rock Island Line” for a trad jazz album called
“New Orleans Joy” in July 1954 and skiffle emerges
from trad jazz because the British trad
guys who are interested in playing New Orleans; trad jazz means jazz
from New Orleans. Predominantly that
was made before 1915. What’s significant in 1958 is
when bands started going north and recording, you know, the
original Dixieland jazz bands and these groups;
start recording jazz and the thing starts
moving forward. New Orleans jazz
has no soloists. It’s a collective effort. Everyone plays around the
rhythm and around the turn. So someone like Louis Armstrong
playing solos that’s a different topic of jazz as far as
the purists are concerned. And but the British trad
jazz fans, they were unable to find anyone to teach
them play this stuff so they only had the records that were made predominantly
made in the 1920s; 20s recordings. And because of the
primitive nature of the recording
equipment, the musicians had to blow really hard to be heard which is partly the reason
why jazz has that pep, they used to call pep to it. You know, it’s kind of
like they’re blasting out. So, the British guys
didn’t have much technique, so they just blew like Billy
goats on their instruments, and as a result after 30
minutes their lips were so numb they couldn’t
play anymore. So, in order not to
lose their audience, they would pick-up acoustic
guitars, a washboard for rhythm, and use the drum base
from the jazz band and they would play broadly
Lead Belly’s repertoire, and Lead Belly is significant
because, steady now, he’s the greatest folk singer
that America ever produced both as a writer of songs,
an interpret of songs, and a collector of songs. And I was arguable to
say that in his place and on your show, but.>>Stephen Winick: We
can go along with that.>>Billy Bragg: As an
outsider I think, you know, you got to remember as far
as Woody was concerned, Lead Belly was to him
as Woody was to Bob. You know, he was physically
a giant, but also I think in American culture
he’s a giant as well. He’s the folk Shakespeare. He’s that, you know, that
guy that always wanted to, because you know Woody was a
genius too, but Woody read, he wrote, he typed
you know, he could, he had a decent education
than Lead Belly. Lead Belly just had
made himself, he had made himself you know
and you can hear in the music. So, so Lead Belly’s vast
repertoire which includes, I mean, I read somewhere
about Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson
playing a song called “Seven Drunken Nights”
which is an old [inaudible] drinking song. Where they got it from I have no
idea, but if they were playing that and “Rock Island
Line”, you know, that’s a pretty broad scope. So, the jazzes decided to play
these Lead Belly songs partly because they believed that the
blues predated traditional jazz, which I don’t think
is actually true. The 12-bar performers as we know
it I think postdates trad jazz, but I think it was because
the trad jazzes used, in New Orleans used
the phrase “blues.”>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: When they made
an informal jam and I think that slightly confused
them, anyway, so they started playing these
what they called a breakdown session; breakdown session with
the acoustic guitars and stuff and that became really popular. In some cases in some events
it became more popular than the trad jazz itself,
particularly with teenagers, because teenagers wanted to
jive and they couldn’t do that in a ballroom in the
UK because ballroom dancing, I don’t know if it’s true in
the United States of America, but in the UK ballroom
dancing is processional. It kind of, the dancers you know
go in a huge sweeping circle. Whereas, jiving is more stag,
right, they move back and forth but they don’t move
around procession. So, if you got kids jiving and adults ballroom
dancing you’re going to get, you’re going to get a
traffic jam, a snarl up. So, jiving was banned. So, these kids went to these
trad jazz gigs and they kind of jived and then along
comes Lonnie Donegan and he’s giving it loads with
“Rock Island Line” and it’s, it’s you know, it’s up
tempo enough to engage them. So, so it become
really, really popular.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
Can you expand on “Rock Island Line” the song?>>Billy Bragg: Yeah,
of course, yeah. The song “Rock Island
Line” begins its life as a glee club song for the
Rock Island Line Railway written by engineers in the Biddle Shops which is the engineering
workshops in the suburbs of Little Rock, Arkansas. And they were encouraged by the, they’re African-American
workers, they were encouraged by the company to form a vocal
group and to go to public events like picnics or to
meetings or church, socials and sing the praises of
the “Rock Island Line.” And there are quite a few
songs about Rock Island. The, there’s one that, the
original tune to, I’m not going to be able to remember
the name of it now, the one of the great American; one of the early great American
railroad songs about the train that takes the hobos to heaven.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: Help me out here and I’ll think of
it in a minute.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: It was original, but tune of that was
originally “Wabash Cannonball.”>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yes.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: “Wabash
Cannonball” was originally the tune that was originally about the great Rock Island
route that was [inaudible]. So, you know, it’s not a
one-off, it’s something that was going on from in
the golden age of railway. That’s how they promoted
the railways. But we first come
across it outside those of us outside Arkansas
when it’s recorded by John A. Lomax accompanied
by Lead Belly who is kind of rodeoing for him
in Cummins Prison Farm in Southern Arkansas in 1935. Lomax is recording songs for the
Library of Congress, work songs and he believes that people
who are in prison are closer to the folk source, because
he said nobody listened to the radio for the last
10 years; he’s concerned about radio may undermine
the folk process. So, he’s recording these work
songs and an architect led by an inmate named Kelly Pace
comes before the microphone and they sing “Rock Island Line”
as a call and response song. And unfortunately Lomax or Lead
Belly never actually asked him if it’s a work song or not,
so the question of whether or not it’s a work song
or just a song they sung, I think it’s still
debatable because I’m not; it’s quite a fast song. What work you could possibly do? You certainly couldn’t
chop an axe. Lead Belly turned it
into a chopping song. He started it off as
a chopping song, but. So anyway, John Lomax records
the song on a piece of equipment on the size of a sort of domestic fridge
and he needs that. That’s how he, that’s
how he records songs. Lead Belly, I mean, he sung
the song a couple of times and he’s got it,
he takes it away. He steals a couple of
lines from nursery rhymes; The Cat in the Cupboard and
some traditional blues lines and he turns it into
the song we know. He kind of adds to it. He bolts stuff onto it and
when he goes out with Lomax to, to give talks to
academics at universities, he’s on the East Coast,
he’s in a bit of a quandary with this song because for
those songs that he learned through the old tradition,
he has a context for them. He says, you know, when we sang
this song we did this, you know, this is; I mean, he’s the
first vernacular singer to ever do this kind of
thing in American culture. And so, he’s you know, the academics said they had
never seen a blues singer like this in front of them, so
they want to know the context, but he has no context
for “Rock Island Line.” He’s got a great song,
but he’s got no context. So, he remembers that they
recorded by the wood pile, so he starts off talking
about as a chopping song, but then after a couple of years
it kind of transforms himself into this story about
a train driver and, or he calls them a
depot agent I think, but he’s actually will
be a signal man I imagine and he’s telling the train
driver that the train’s got to holt, because there’s
an express train coming in; the golden age of railroad,
freight trains have to give way to express trains, but
there’s an exemption on animal welfare grounds if
you’re carrying livestock. So, he says to the,
Lead Belly says to the depot agent,
“I’ve got pigs. I’ve got horses, I’ve
got all livestock.” He says, “Okay, you can go.” And then he goes down the
line and shouts back to him, “Fooled yeah, I’ve fooled yeah, I’ve got pig iron”
which maybe a pun. And it’s that version which
finally develops into the story that we’re familiar with. And Donegan I think uses one
of the later versions recorded in the 1940s as his model, but
he adds to the story again by, by introducing a
tollgate into the story. The train has got to pay a toll
because of what it has on it, it’s like a tariff really. It’s like the idea of a tariff
trying to cross the border, but of course, there
never was a tollgate on American railroads, you know. So, Donegan is kind of adding to
it in a way that Lead Belly did. But the interesting thing about
Donegan’s version is by bringing in the tollgate, he’s kind of
watermarked it as his version. So, if you ever hear a
version of “Rock Island Line” and it’s got a tollgate in it, that person is not been
listening to Lead Belly, they listened to Lonnie Donegan. And I have to say,
Johnny Cash’s first album with Sun Records opens
with “Rock Island Line” and he mentions the tollgate, so
that’s very interesting for me; that’s a very, very interesting;
there is a saying with folks, “What goes around comes around.”>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: I don’t know if you ever really
heard that Steve.>>Stephen Winick: Yep. Absolutely.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick:
Yeah, it’s interesting because you know Johnny
was not necessarily aware that he learned it from
someone who had learned it from Lonnie Donegan if
you know what I mean. It became so much a
part of popular culture.>>Billy Bragg: Well, it was a.>>Stephen Winick:
For that short time.>>Billy Bragg: It
was a huge hit. I mean.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: It got up to
number 8 in the American charts and there were a dozen copies. If I remember rightly, Rod Mckuen’s first
band he recorded it. The guy who became the voice of
the Jolly Green Giant he did it. There was a kind of
Uncle Dave Macon type of guy he recorded a
version of it as well and they all mention
the tollgate. They all mention the tollgate.>>Stephen Winick: Yes.>>Billy Bragg: It’s,
I mean you know, I don’t if Lonnie
knew this but he kind of like recast the song
for a new generation.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah. I think he just didn’t
understand what the situation was that led [multiple
speakers].>>Billy Bragg: I
think he was trying to make sense of it, yeah.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: I think he was
trying to make sense of it.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: In his own mind.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: Because the
old song says the train goes to New Orleans and “Rock Island
Line” it went to New Orleans and it’s possible that Lead
Belly might be saying Moline.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: And
Moline is the county in which Rock Island is. It’s one of the tri-cities
I think Davenport, so he might have been
talking about that. Nobody.>>Stephen Winick: Speaking of
what goes around comes around, I mean one of the reasons
that, that we at the Library of Congress are so interested
in this skiffle story is that Lead Belly and John Lomax
were making that recording for the Library of Congress.>>Billy Bragg: That’s right.>>Stephen Winick: And so,
that recording is here. It was made for us
and we still have it and you were actually
able to look at the.>>Billy Bragg: The sleeve.>>Stephen Winick: At
the sleeve from it.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, that
was an amazing thing to see. To see John Lomax’s
handwriting on there.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: And his notes
from that day was kind of, that was a sort of
a wow moment for me.>>Stephen Winick: So, one of
the things that’s interesting to us is the question of how
this recording from the Library of Congress ends up in
Lonnie Donegan’s repertoire.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. Well, in the years
after World War II, the American Government created
something called the United States Information
Service which was setup to propagate American
culture around the world and it mostly took the form of libraries closely
associated with your embassies. In Grosvenor Square in London,
directly across the road from the, or across the
square from the Embassy, there was a USIS
building and, again, it was predominantly books, but in the basement there
was a record library and the record library was the
Library of Congress recordings; the entire catalog was the
Library of Congress recordings and if you gave them your name and address you could borrow
one of those recordings. So, it’s highly likely that the
skifflers would get them there, because you couldn’t kind
of buy Lead Belly records. You know, Lead Belly
wasn’t released in, you know, in the UK. You could get him in import and
you had to then know somebody who went to America in order
to do that, so to be able to have access to
those records on a, on a library basis was very,
very important to those guys and a number of them I spoke to
were very angry about Donegan because he used to borrow
the records and keep them, and Ron Gould who was one
of the interviewees told me that he went into the Library of
Congress and they checked for; I think it was, he said I think
he said it was Muddy Waters that used to over farm
and Lomax’s recordings, but Muddy used to over farm. And he looked at it
and he said, “Well, it’s been loaned out
to a T. Donegan.” His real name is
Tony, Tony Donegan and unfortunately he’s lost
it and Ron Gould was like, but so Donegan’s rationale
was that the library, the American Embassy could
always buy a new copy. He couldn’t. Where was he going to
get it, so he happily, I think it was a 4 shilling
fine or something like that and he said he was happy to pay
the fine and he had the record.>>Stephen Winick: One of the things that’s funny is
I later looked up a history of the USIS and the librarians
were actually quite explicit about the fact that
they didn’t much mind if people stole materials
from the library, because the whole point was to.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: Get the
American message out there.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: And
if someone stole it that meant they really
liked it and they’d share it with their friends and
that’s exactly what happened.>>Mary Sue Twohy: And
Donegan really did that well.>>Billy Bragg: I’ll
tell Ron Gould that, but I don’t think it will
make him feel any better.>>Mary Sue Twohy: So, the
punk movement in the 1970s and the skiffle emergence
in the 1950s; how do you see them connected?>>Billy Bragg: Well, I think
they’re connected in the sense that skiffle was an
empowering movement. You know, it was young
people making their own music in the same way that
punk was in 1977. In some ways tried to been
a kind of a little like punk in the sense that the trad
guys were trying to get away from the commerciality of
contemporary jazz which had sort of mutated the kind that called
swing, big bands you know, crooners they wanted to get back
to the basics of it and that, in that sense it’s very
similar to what the Ramones and the [inaudible] were
trying to do just before punk when they were a pulled by the
commerciality of guitar rock and they were trying to get
back to something purer. So, this, that kind of
is a little bit like, like punk as well, but the thing
about skiffle is it touches in so many of the founding
ideas of punk world. One of the key tenants of punk
was here’s 3 chords now form a band, and of course that
was true of skiffle, because you only needed 3
chords to play almost all of Donegan’s repertoire. It was very much a hands on the
[inaudible] music, in the sense that you know they were
building their own instruments. A key aspect of skiffle is
something called a tea chest bass which I think you
call a washtub bass, but a tea chest base was a, if
can imagine a box like a crate about a meter by a meter
by just less than a meter. It was used for importing
loose leaf tea from India and they used to literally cut
the top off and then use them as storage cases; all of us
have them in our attics at home so used for storage, but
if you tip it upside-down so the base now becomes the top
and you, you mount a broom pole to the edge and run a piece of
twine to the center and pull it through and tie it, you
can get a kind of a doom, doom, doom, doom noise. It’s not very in pitch, but
it has the effect of that, so this is what they did. They made these, they made
their musical instruments with stuff they could
buy in a hardware shop. What could be more
DIY than that? You know, there’s
something about DIY. But I think most important of
all was the sense of empowerment that came with skiffle. The thing to me that
was really attractive about punk was it
was at year zero. It was like everything else that
came before, out the window. Forget it. I mean, obviously we’ve, we
thought that, but at the time, it was like this is us, we
are, we identify with this and we’re different
from what went before. Skiffle is that times a
hundred, because we’re talking about the first time it
happened in our culture, and what the symbol of
it is is the guitar. The guitar is not
an instrument common in British culture
up to that point. Our folk music was predominantly if it was singing it
was unaccompanied, it was instrumental,
it was fiddles and a squeeze box stuff
like that, you know. It wasn’t; guitars were
played by outsiders like singing cowboys, or
calypsonians, or bluesmen. So, in taking the guitar,
Donegan was introducing, he was the first Britain to get
on the charts playing guitar, and it kind of gave that
generation of young men a symbol of their difference from
the previous generation. So, the guitar becomes
the symbol of year zero. And I think that if you were
a kid in 57 and you saw a sign that said “Tonight Skiffle”, you
wouldn’t necessarily just expect to hear Donegan songs. You would expect to hear
music played on a guitar. Skiffle means guitar music. Skiffle means a new beginning. Skiffle means, you know, that
punk meant a number of things, it meant you had the Pistols
and The Clash, but also Ian Dury by the Blockheads
and stuff like that.>>Mary Sue Twohy: But, punk didn’t have the
never-ending contest, punk contest.>>Billy Bragg: No, that’s true. That’s true, but the, one of the
problems for the skifflist was that they didn’t,
they were so young, many of them were so young.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: You
know, Van Morrison was 12 when he heard Lead Belly. George Harrison was 13, Paul
McCarthy was 14, Lennon was 16 when Donegan played in Liverpool
and they all, you know, Lennon formed the Quarrymen
within 2 weeks of seeing him. They were so young that
they never did proper gigs like I do gigs. A lot of punk bands did gigs. They were just playing in school
halls, you know, scout huts, church halls, coffee bars. They didn’t make records. You know, there’s an
estimated between 30 and 50,000 skiffle bands playing
at [inaudible] in 1957, but.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: Their
all under 18. They’re not making records. They don’t have a career, but what they do
have is competitions. They had skiffle contests
organized which ended up with some of the, some of
these bands appearing on TV and some were promised
record deals, but really it’s how they all
cut the teeth playing live. And you know, all those
guys, I mean the skiffle, The Beatles failed
their skiffle band, The Quarrymen failed
their audition for a national skiffle contest. They weren’t up to
speed, but interestingly.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
That’s amazing.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. Interestingly, it was a whole, the whole thing was just a
complete con, because the person who had the loudest applause
won, so it was you know, you wanted to bring
all your friends so the promoters made a fortune,
but it was very serious. I mean, the finals,
the finals was in a primetime TV program
called Come Dancing which went out on 7 O’clock on a Friday
night which was a huge, it’s a ballroom dancing and
my parents watched it avidly. But the skiffle competition
final was in that program. It wasn’t in some kids program.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: It was
the absolute center of our, of our culture.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow. And there’s lots of
skiffle clubs too in.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: In Soho.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, there, well and around the country
Donegan encouraged people to form clubs. He had a sort of a
newsletter which explained how to form a club and if you came
to play in town he would sort of try and get down there and they would get a
pre-released copy of his record and how to play it
and stuff like that. Which in some ways led
to the formation of some of the early folk clubs in my
country, you know, that are sort of the folk revival kind
of came out of skiffle.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
Can you talk to us about the Flexi recordings,
those little plastic ones?>>Billy Bragg: Yeah
I can, yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: That
was kind of fascinating.>>Billy Bragg: Again, there
are obviously similarities with punk rock in that
they were fanzines. People made, you know, Xerox
fanzines that they sold around clubs and this one
band made some Flexi discs; Flexi discs for those of you who
aren’t old enough to remember is like a transparent plastic
square with record grooves in it and you can staple it
to a magazine and sell. And the Eden Street skiffle
group made the entire album; it’s one of the very few skiffle
albums actually they made an entire album of.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: These Flexis and
what you had to do is you had to fold the corners into the
sleeve of the 7-inch sleeve which gave it some rigidity
and then, and then put it on and put an old English penny
which is like a cartwheel and put it on top of the
needles and it would bounce up and down and they still play. I bought some on eBay and
you can still play them. They still work after over 60
years; 60-year-old technology.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Very
similar to punk then.>>Stephen Winick:
Yeah, I think the point of the Flexi was you could
put it inside the magazine.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: And
the magazine would flex, it wouldn’t crack
the way a regular.>>Billy Bragg: Or stick it on
the back of a Corn Flakes box.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: They
were very popular to put kid’s music
on Corn Flakes boxes.>>Stephen Winick: Right. So, so you mentioned the
importance of Lead Belly and other traditional
American songs which was a big part of skiffle. There was this other thing
that happened sort of late in skiffle that, that I
wonder if you think of it or how you think of it that
it’s a those songs like “My Old Man’s a Dustman” or.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: “Does Your
Chewing Gum Lose its Flavor?” The.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: The
novelty songs of ended skiffle.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: Is that kind of a betrayal of
the skiffle idea?>>Billy Bragg: I’m not sure
they’re technically they’re skiffle really Stephen. I think what happens is
Lonnie Donegan becomes an all-round entertainer. You guys see, Lonnie in
some ways is our Elvis. You know, he’s the very first
and, and it’s worth mentioning that he recorded “Rock
Island Line” on the 13th of July 1954 just a week
after Elvis Presley recorded “It’s Alright Mama” in
Memphis with Sam Phillips, so they’re almost simultaneous.>>Stephen Winick:
You could argue it’s like the most important
week in pop music.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. You could. What came out of that? But it’s, and it’s
amazing that the, that it happened so closely. But just as Elvis kind of
didn’t really know where to go and ended up going to Vegas,
well Donegan kind of goes to these sort of novelty songs and so it betrays the
credibility he had, because he has amazing
credibility in his early years among the, the young people
playing his music, so I think that because Donegan
is the only real superstar and his career sustains
after the skiffle star wanes. What happens is it’s
superseded by rock and roll. I don’t think we can, My Old
Man’s a Dustman” kind of sort of finishes it for
all the skifflers, it’s like it’s over;
that’s 1960. Although, I have to say, that
same year The Beatles went to Hamburg and as
constituted at the time, The Beatles were
Harrison, McCarthy, and Lennon the 3 guitar
players from the Quarrymen, Pete Best who was the son of
a woman they knew played a bit of drums and their
friend who looked great but couldn’t really play
the bass, but when they got to Hamburg there was a,
Koschmider put a wrestler out to look after them, a big
old German wrestler to keep them out of trouble and he
was interviewed by a DJ, an American DJ at the height
of Beatle mania in the 1960s and the guy asked
him, “What were they like when they first
came to Hamburg?” And he said, “They played too
much of that washboard music.” You know, he said,
“Those British bands, they thought Lonnie
Donegan was Elvis.” I mean, the implication
of that is that The Beatles were still
more or less a skiffle band when they got to Hamburg. I mean, because that’s not
the way the legend goes, and I think you got to
accept that skiffle did carry on after Donegan disappeared,
because those kids are still, they’re still playing,
they’ve got the bug now. They’re playing guitars and
they still, they’re still, it’s still as accessible as
it was, but it was like a, it was kind of like
a school ground, a playground crying skiffle. It wasn’t like a scene. It was like every [inaudible]
school boy could play 3 chords on a guitar, you know,
and you had a choice, you could play football
and impress your mates or play guitar and
impress girls.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Exactly.>>Billy Bragg: You can see
the attraction can’t you?>>Mary Sue Twohy: Exactly.>>Stephen Winick: What
if you could both I mean?>>Billy Bragg: That
would be impossible.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: I’ve
never seen anybody do both at the same time.>>Mary Sue Twohy: So,
skiffle, skiffle has roots in traditional jazz and we’d
like to ask you about that and also talk about the 20-year
Musician’s Union embargo.>>Billy Bragg: Oh, dear
that’s a shameful episode.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yes.>>Billy Bragg: In our history. Well, where would you
like me to start on that?>>Mary Sue Twohy: Let’s
start with traditional jazz and then we’ll move
over to the embargo.>>Billy Bragg: What can I
tell you about trad jazz? The a just sort of?>>Mary Sue Twohy: I think the
fact that, that it has roots, it’s a major root of skiffle.>>Billy Bragg: It is yes.>>Stephen Winick: Maybe
the Ken Colyer story.>>Billy Bragg: The
Ken Colyer story.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah,
yeah that’s a great, yes.>>Billy Bragg: It’s
such a great story, yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: And
the jail scene too.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah
that whole thing. Well, the driving
force behind trad jazz in the UK was a guy named Ken
Colyer who’s a trumpet player. And he was hugely frustrated
by the fact that he was unable to see any of these
jazz bands play, because there was a band on,
American bands touring in the UK between 1935 and 1955. It was a reciprocal
band that originated with the American Federation
of Musicians who in 1934 said that British band leaders, jazz band leaders could
only tour the United States of America if A, they use
only American musicians and B, if they took out
American citizenship. It’s the worst kind
of protectionism and as someone who’s always
been a supporter of unions, you can imagine how
disappointed I was particularly with music as well.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: So, the British
Ministry of Labour reciprocated on that and nobody toured. So, so for the jazzers
after the war, they couldn’t learn
really how to play, because you see you only learn by seeing someone
physically do it. That’s how you learn. You sat on the edge of the
stage, that’s what Donegan did, it’s what Chris Barber
did, all those guys did. They sat there every night and
watched as close as you and I as they could to the
guys who were playing. So, Ken Colyer realized that
some of the original players, although they’re in their
60s and 70s, were still alive and playing in dives
in New Orleans. So, he hatched a plot
to get to New Orleans. Except the only way you could
really get to New Orleans in those days was, well it
was almost impossible really, because not only because
the travel and the distance and the cost, but the British
Government wouldn’t let you go out of the country with
more than about 10 pounds because of currency smuggling. So it was impossible. So he comes up with
this brilliant plan. He joins the Merchant Navy, the
Merchant Marines and goes all around the world until
eventually he gets, he gets a job in on a boat
and goes to Mobile, Alabama. Now when he gets to
Mobile he jumps ship, gets the tourist fees for a
month and goes to New Orleans, and he finds George
Lewis Band who backup on, backed up Bunk Johnson
on Ken’s favorite record. And there it just pleases
Chuck to see some kid from England who’s interested
in what they’re doing, because they’re playing
to people their age; they’re playing to 70-year-olds. You know, British, American,
African-American guys in their 20s are
listening to beep-bop. They’re not listening to
old time jazz, you know, that’s grandad’s music. So, not only does
he know his stuff, he knows it so well he
can sit in with them. So, they invite him to get
on the bandstand and play which is just incredible when
you think about it, isn’t it?>>Mary Sue Twohy: How
radical was that in itself?>>Billy Bragg: Well that was
very radical for a, you know, a White guy to play
with Black musicians and it ultimately cost him is
liberty, because when he went to renew his Visa
he was a day late because his renewal date
was the 25th of December. Now normally you might think, sorry about that
mate we weren’t open, or you might say I’m
afraid that’s a misdemeanor and if you have a misdemeanor
what happens to you? They put you in-house arrest
in a hotel in a hostile and then they deport you. But they put Ken in jail. They jailed him and the
implication is really that they, you know, this is punishment
for, for associating with African-American musicians.>>Mary Sue Twohy: And he
was in jail for a while.>>Billy Bragg: He was in jail for a longtime, 38
days without bail. This is a completely
unprecedented for someone on a Visa violation, you know. And whenever they ask him what
we’d do if they let him out, he said I’ll go and
play with those guys. I’ve come to learn. So, they just kept him
locked up as a subversive, because in those days to make
a stand against Jim Crow was to be a subversive,
was to be a Communist. I mean, I have to say Ken
was a bit of left-winger, but he was never a member of
or any of that kind of stuff, but he knew exactly
what he was doing. But the other side of the story
is, being in jail in Louisiana, you know, that’s like Lead Belly
territory isn’t it, you know? When he comes back to
England who is going to be able penitentiary blues with more authority
than Ken Colyer? So it was like amazing. So, he writes to his brother. His brother gets all
these letters printed in the Melody Maker, so his
stories is one is well-known, and when he comes home to, to
England he comes like the kind of trad jazz Moses coming
down from the mountain with the tablets, you know. And Chris Barber, and Lonnie
Donegan, and Monty Sunshine, Ron Bowden formed a band around
him, The Ken Colyer Jazz Band and they go on to carry
forward the flag of trad jazz, the best trad jazz
and it’s, of course, that band that institute
the breakdown sessions.>>Stephen Winick: And so skiffle comes
directly out of there.>>Billy Bragg: Yes,
out that session yeah.>>Stephen Winick: So, another
great connection that you found for the book which you put
in the book and which comes from the Library of Congress,
is that there happens to be a terrific
photo in our Prints and Photographs Division
of Bunk Johnson who.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick:
Was the trumpet player that Ken Colyer went
to look for.>>Billy Bragg: The hero, yeah.>>Stephen Winick: With
Lead Belly playing.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick:
Guitar for him.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Oh!>>Billy Bragg: And he
[multiple speakers].>>Mary Sue Twohy: That’s great.>>Billy Bragg: In
1947 I think, yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
Oh, I love it.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, 2
verses, 1 [inaudible]. I was real pleased to see
that to find photograph, yeah and it’s public
domain as well even better.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. So, you know, it’s an interest;
I didn’t really know anything about jazz period and
certainly not trad jazz, so I found it really interesting
to sort of follow Ken. You know, Ken was my kind
of; there’s a great book about his life called “Goin’
Home; The Uncompromising Life and Times of Ken Colyer” which
kind of goes in-depth in all that and he kind of like gave
me enough points of reference to be able to sort of work,
you know, get off and check out a few other names and try
and draw together a chapter that introduces English
audiences to the significance of New Orleans in our music. I think it’s probably more
important than New York and more important
than Chicago really. It doesn’t get that credibility,
but, and it’s like no other city in the United States as
far as I’m concerned. It’s significance in those
days was considerable, but when it was at the mouth
of the Mississippi, you know, it was the kind of
permeable membrane that the coach would pass through on its way
to the interior. You know, it wasn’t the West
Coast that, or the East Coast or the West Coast that
influenced the interior. It was big Muddy and New
Orleans at end of it. I think people, they lost
sight of that a little bit.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
And benignets too. Can’t forget them.>>Billy Bragg: No.>>Stephen Winick: So, we
talked about a couple of groups of people, the trad jazz people
and Lonnie Donegan and his crew, but there was one other group of
people that you mentioned a lot in the book and that
you talk about a bit which is the American
expats who happen to be.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: In
London at that time.>>Billy Bragg: By
coincidence, yeah. By incredible coincidence,
just at a time when Lead Belly’s music and Woody Guthrie’s music is
becoming significant in the UK, there were 3 characters who just
so happened to be in London, the first and perhaps the
most important was Alan Lomax who having worked for
the Library of Congress since the 1930s came under
suspicion in the years after the Second World War of
during the Red Scar basically because he was promoting
African-American culture. I think that’s all
it could have been. And he decided that it might
be in his best interest to go abroad for a while. He got a gig making an
anthology of world music for CBS which involved him scouring
Europe for recordings and he based himself in London. He was actually in London
when “Rock Island Line” got in the charts which must
have been really weird for him not only, you know,
did he know Lead Belly, but he was kind of,
you know, wasn’t there when it was recorded but
obviously he took part in the propagation
of all that stuff. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was
also in London at the time. He really didn’t have any
profile in the UK at all; he wasn’t even Ramblin’
in those days, but he and his new wife June
Hammerstein were traveling around the world or trying to
travel around the world busking and playing guitar and he
kind of turned up at the time when people, you know, nobody
had ever seen a real cowboy. I know Jack wasn’t a real
cowboy, but he had been in a rodeo; he did run away
to [multiple speakers]. He was a rodeo cowboy,
yeah, yeah. And his cowboy persona,
I mean again, Ron Gould who saw him play
said, he said he had Levis on. I’m like, yeah wow. That’s incredible Ron and,
you know, and he had a hat. So, it was like clearly what; he
had a flat top Martin as well, he had a flat top Martin
which nobody had seen and he could just play
in a lot of styles. He just was brilliant at it. And Peggy Seeger was also.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Peggy Seeger.>>Billy Bragg: In
the UK at that time. She’d in some ways the red
scale [inaudible] in her family, her father Charles Seeger
who was a very similar to John Lomax was a
collector of songs. He had his, I think he had
his passport impounded. So, she decided to cut out
and went to study in Europe and Lomax hooked up with her and
brought her to London and so, yeah they all kind of,
they took the opportunity that you know the first skiffle
club opened in Soho in 1955, well the first one that we
have records for, there was a, a specific skiffle club rather
than a jazz club with skiffle in it which was the
previous experience of it. The first standalone
skiffle-blues club at the Roundhouse opened in
the late 1955 just before “Rock Island Line” came out. So, there was already
a scene, you know. Donegan’s record appears on
the back of a of scene there, but you have to, the one thing
you have to grasp about all that stuff is the context
for British youth, you know. These are kids who had grown up
in a time of war and rationing. The war ended in 1945,
rationing didn’t end until 1954. So, there was all this kind of
suppressed sort of want that was as simple as not being
able to go in a sweet shop and buy whatever you want. I mean, John Lennon
was a born in 1940. He was 14, he could do that.>>Mary Sue Twohy: And they
had income too, the teenagers.>>Billy Bragg: Well, yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: They kind
of left school at 15. Lennon didn’t. He went to art school,
but a whole car drive of working class youth
left school in 54-55 and they easily found
employment. They had money. The young women went out and
bought cosmetics and clothes and records, and the
young men bought guitars. And I think that’s sort of, and one of the reasons why
I think they bought guitars, and it’s just a theory of mine, but when in 1955 is significant
is because when “Rock Around the Clock” becomes a
hit and that’s on the back of the movie “Blackboard Jungle”
which is the opening titles. But it also doesn’t really
get played on the BBC. It gets played in Luxembourg,
which is [inaudible] from Central Europe and AFN and
the American Forces’ Network, but the BBC kind of ignores
it and I’m just thinking that maybe there was an impulse
from them kids;” you’re going to ration rock and
roll as well?”>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: “You
think you’re going to ration rock and roll, right. I tell you what we’re going to
do, we’re going to buy guitars and we’re going to play
this shit whether you like it or not.” I think there was a bit of
that in there, you know.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Because they
had been deprived for so long.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Of the
sort of comforts of life and now they had some money
to spend, and they were able through that to define
themselves. That’s how first teenagers
and they define themselves, for the young men
they define themselves by playing the guitar. They become visible; a different
culture from their parents and for the young women,
they define themselves by colonizing the coffee
bars, the cappuccino bars. They go into those spaces. They want their own social
space and they don’t want to go into tea rooms with the mums
still come and they can’t go in a pub on their
own without geezers, so they go into the cappuccino
bars and what’s significant about that, is that the
cappuccino bars are looking to Milan and Paris and Rome. They’re not looking at New York. It’s quite sophisticated
for that time, you know. This is Jean Seberg, Robert
[phonetic], and Marilyn Monroe. I think that, that’s how the
young women turned their back on what had been predominantly since the 30s really an
American-based culture and they looked towards Europe. That’s how they defined
themselves as different. So, these, this context
is really important for that first generation to
sort of say, “We are different and this is how we’re going
to express our difference.”>>Stephen Winick: But a really
interesting point that you make in the book and that
you just made here which I think seems weird
to modern people is the idea that this was the first
generation of teenagers; that teenagers, as a thing,
didn’t exist before that.>>Billy Bragg: No, no. And in some ways, even
after 55 for middleclass and upper class kids,
teenagers still didn’t exist, because what happened for the
middle class kids they tended to go to university and
then into professions which deferred earnings until
they were adults, you know, law or medicine or
something like that. So, that; because the
thing that you know as always what defines
teenagers is what they buy, what they consume, what they
wear, you know, their style. So, this was the first time
working class youth had been visible to popular culture. If we look between the
wars, there are teenagers, the flappers and that, but
they are almost all upper class or middleclass girls who are
visible to the mainstream media of the day, you know, working
class youth are just you know they’re just a blur, they’re not
really; they may have some sort of culture, but you don’t
really see it, you don’t really, it’s not a, it’s not
a mainstream culture. The thing about skiffle
is it’s in, it’s straight down the mainstream, you
know, it kind of breaks into public consciousness
in a way that youth culture
had never done before.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Even with
guitars, the ‘Skiffle Junior.’>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. Toy guitars.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Did you ever
see one of them and hold it?>>Billy Bragg: I’ve seen, yes I have seen a
‘Skiflle Junior’ guitar. There’s one in a record shop in
Demark Street in London going up on a wall in a
record shop there. And.>>Mary Sue Twohy: This
is the one with the ears?>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. Of course, they’re all the
ones with the ears yeah. It’s got ears on it because
it was originally a Mickey Mouse guitar.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: Made as a Disney
spinoff and then they kind of repurpose it by putting
illustrations in the ears, the [inaudible] ears; the
body of the guitar it looks like Mickey Mouse’s face face-on
and it’s more like a ukulele than a guitar, it’s only got 4
strings and it’s a toll wreck of getting tuned, but yeah. Everybody, it was a total craze;
it was a really skiffle was more like the, you know the
fidget spinners things that going on in the moment. You aware of that
in the playgrounds?>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. It was much more like that than it was punk rock
in the way it grew. You know, it was a craze. Every sentient school boy could
play 3 chords on the guitar, and what’s significant
about that, is that when Chuck Berry comes
along 5 months later playing guitar like ringing a bell,
everyone can play his repertoire and then what happens then is
that the, when your teenagers, because of that, our
teenagers have learned this when they’re 13-14-15. When your teenagers are
thinking about playing guitars when they’re 17-18-19, they
contend with our teenagers, they’re already in Hamburg.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: They’re
already in Hamburg. So, what happens is when The
Beatles break America in 64, there’s a whole cohort of
road-hardened bands ready to come piling in and take
the American charts by storm and it’s skiffle that gives
our kids that [inaudible] after 2 years edge on your
teenagers who were kind of playing guitars, but
they’re not writing songs and they’re not, you
know, they’re kind of playing the pops of the day. They’re not thinking of
it as a, as a career. Where our kids have already
focused on flying, you know.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah, what
was the George Harrison quote that you mentioned that
connects skiffle, right, with, with rock and roll?>>Billy Bragg: It’s one of
my favorite quotes actually. George Harrison was asked if
The Beatles were influenced by the blues, and he said,
“Yeah, of course we were. No Lead Belly, nNo
Lonnie Donegan, no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.” And that sort of sums
it up really, you know. That sums up how
the process worked and how skiffle was the kind of
nursery for the British invasion of the American charts
between, between 1964 when The Beatles had their first
number 1 in January and the end of 65, there’s a British
group at number 1 in America for 52 weeks out of 104.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: And
every single one of those bands was originally
a skiffle group apart from Petula Clark
who is the exception, because she when rock
[inaudible] she had kind of actually already put out a dozen singles
under her own name. She didn’t need Lonnie
Donegan to.>>Mary Sue Twohy: But there
are some women in skiffle.>>Billy Bragg: There are. There are some women in and important women,
very important women. Nancy Whiskey who sings
“Freight Train” which was a hit in the United States, as well
as, in the UK; Hilda Simms and Shirley Bland in the City
Ramblers absolute key aspects of that, but what they are a lot
of, because the skifflers were so young, 98% of them never
made in the recordings. It just, it was skiffle was
gone by the time they were, they were still playing. So what is left is loads
and loads and loads of black and white photographs of Kalo
[phonetic] youths playing, you know, cheap old
guitars and tea-chest bass. There are literally
every local newspaper in the UK has a file
full of these bands, because they were big
news in the, you know, in the 50s, so a good copy.>>Mary Sue Twohy: And they
were, they were having a ball.>>Billy Bragg: They
were having a ball.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: But I’ve seen
loads and loads and loads of those pictures and I don’t
think I’ve seen a handful of women in any of
those pictures. One or 2 bands have,
might have a woman at the back playing
the tea-chest bass. I did one, come across
an entire band of women, but on a closer inspection they
were actually RS travelers. It was the mom and
the 3 daughters and they were just dressing up
playing skiffle for the picture. There’s a story attached to
it, and I don’t know why, but it was something that really
connected with, with kids. It may be that it was guys
who were playing guitars; I saw where it was
Lead Belly, or Broonzy, or Elvis, or Bill Halley. There weren’t, you know, there was no Wonder
Jacks’ in the UK, you know.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Exactly.>>Billy Bragg: So,
there wasn’t, the girl singers were you know
mostly singing with big bands like Petula Clark and
they were, you know, I have to say they were
rather sort of simpering. Whereas, the guitar players were
outcasts; they were dynamic; they were roustabouts.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yes.>>Billy Bragg: And
you can see that sort of attachment for that.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: And it’s hard
to go back and, it’s very hard to go back and get into the
mindset of what it would be like to hear rock online
for the first time.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: We’re
so, we’re so you know, we’re so past that, you know.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: We’ve not
lived down to our lives in a time of ration and war. We’ve not had to listen to the
everything mediated by the BBC and rationed out to us,
so it’s hard to get back. You can only really sort of try
and look at what the evidence is and extrapolate how and why. So, I may totally be
wrong, but I do believe that young women were a key
driving force in skiffle, because their colonization of the coffee bars is what draws
skiffle into the coffee bars and it’s only when skiffle comes into coffee bars
it really starts to evolve into rock and roll.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: In that sense,
in terms of British rock and roll, skiffle is kind of
the noise you hear on the track when a train is coming
in a tube station. That’s what skiffle is
to British rock and roll. It’s the standalone thing. It’s a completely
different thing. It’s not, it wasn’t supposed
to lead to rock and roll, but that’s the role it plays. It kind of lets you
know it’s coming and it’s coming soon, you know.>>Mary Sue Twohy: And
what about Stan Freberg and His Sniffle Group?>>Billy Bragg: Well, this is
another very interesting thing. When Lonnie Donegan has a
hit in the United States of America with, with his
version of “Rock Island Line”, the great Stan Freberg
does a Mickey-take record of it, joking with it. But what’s significant about that is the flipside
is a Mickey-take of Elvis and Donegan and Elvis again.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: They’re
as equals as far as Stan was concerned, you
know, and Donegan significantly, Donegan was marketed in the US
in 56 as the Irish Hillbilly. He was neither Irish, he was
actually born in Scotland.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Exactly.>>Billy Bragg: And
lived most of his life in London nor was a
hillbilly, but the significance of that term is that at the time
Elvis Presley was being called a Hillbilly Cat, so this
was putting Donegan in the same category,
the Hillbilly category and I mean even people
like, you know, Slim Whitman was
called a hillbilly. Anyone with a guitar at the time
in the charts was a hillbilly. It was hillbilly
music, the guitar.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. The jazz magazines in Britain
dismissed Donegan having a hit with “Rock Island Line” in terms of his dreadful hillbilly music
that’s coming from America. Bobby [inaudible], Slim
Whitman, and you know, a Tennessee Ernie
Ford “Sixteen Tons.” There was a number of hits
in 55 sort of cowboy songs that are going to the charts and
the jazzers saw Donegan as parts of that and it may be why
“Rock Island Line” was put out that Decca Records
were looking for someone to match these guys, because
all the British singers were, even they were singing
country songs, would wear a dinner jacket and
a bow tie and they had no one who looked like, you know, they
kind of ridden off the plains and that’s Donegan, and that
might have been, you know, that might have been some of the
reason why, because as I said, it was originally recorded in
the context of a jazz record in 1954 and then suddenly
gets released in late 1955. Obviously it had “rock”
in the title and “Rock Around the Clock”
had been a hit, so it might have been
something to do with that. But it really is a complete
fluke, no one sat down and said right, let’s have
a skiffle before, you know, the skiffle burst, no. It’s not, it’s not like that. In fact, the actual
record the 10-inch single of “Rock Island Line” says the
word “jazz” on the label twice.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: So, you
know and it’s a, you know, an American folk song
sung by a blues guy, I mean you know, it’s kind of.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Although, but the way it comes together
it’s all just classic sort of cut-cut thing.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: And it’s
interesting, at one point in the book you describe
Fred Hellerman.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah,
poor old Fred.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Right on
stage with Lonnie Donegan.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
And then what happens?>>Billy Bragg: Well, when
Donegan comes to the US, although the band aren’t
touring, American musicians tour in the UK and the UK
musicians tour in the US.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Because
the embargos were lifted.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, the
embargo has ended, yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: In 55. Donegan’s one of the first
to benefit from that. He’s not allowed to
bring his guitar. He’s not allowed
to play his guitar. The AFN won’t let
him play his guitar.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
Can you imagine?>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, exactly.>>Stephen Winick: So he has
to hire someone to play guitar for him [multiple speakers]?>>Billy Bragg: He has
to hire someone to play. On the Ed Sullivan Show the guy
who plays guitar in the band on the Ed Sullivan Show is the
same guy who plays the intro to Mrs. Robinson by
Simon and Garfunkel.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Oh my.>>Billy Bragg: That’s a
sort of side fact there. But yeah, he does a kind of a
stand supper club in Brooklyn and they get Fred Hellerman
to come and play for him; Fred Hellerman from the Weavers.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yes.>>Billy Bragg: I suppose because he’s singing
Lead Belly songs. Fred Hellerman, you
know, I mean he played at Lead Belly’s funeral, I mean
he knew Lead Belly very well, but he didn’t really appreciate of what Lonnie was
doing with his songs. So, Lonnie’s wife
singing was to speed up; that was his whole thing. That’s what made him so
exciting to the British kids to get a kind of runaway
train theme to it. Hellerman didn’t like that. He didn’t like that, so or actually he suddenly
passed away last year, but I spoke to him
before he passed away and he didn’t like
Lonnie at all. He didn’t like him and
I can understand that, because you know, he said
he didn’t you know he didn’t respect the material and the
audience didn’t respect it and I, you know. It’s understandable. The audience who came to see Donegan were Elvis’
audience; there weren’t.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Lead Belly and
the Weavers audience you know. So, what happens is Lead
Belly, Donegan goes out on tour on a rock and roll tour with
Chuck Berry and Clyde McPhatter and a lot of other bands, and
he’s allowed to play the guitar but he has to, he’s
backed up the pit orchestra in every place they play. They played 11 shows a day and
he plays 2 songs starting at 11 in the morning, no food
until nighttime and he, he’s not getting on
very well with this. And when they get to
Detroit the, Johnny Burnette from the Rock and Roll Trio, perhaps the greatest rockabilly
band that side of Sunshine and Elvis to ever perform,
say to him “Listen man, why don’t you let us back you
up on these songs, you know, because we love what
you’re doing.” And Donegan was like “Oh,
I couldn’t afford that.” And Johnny Burnette says, “Man, it’s not about money
just let us back you up.” So, they do. They work together and I
think this is significant that skiffle meets
rockabilly in 56 in Detroit and they recognize one
another as kings, you know, and the fit together like
hand and glove, you know. And in some ways rockabilly
is similar to skiffle in that it too was
superseded by rock and roll. What we said, rockabilly needs
no drums, percussive bass, a couple of guitars you know, no
piano and those kinds of things. But what is significant
about skiffle in terms of what happened in
the United States of America why skiffle isn’t
the same, it’s not you know, because there are artists
who were inspired by that. I mean, Dave Van Ronk and some
friends make a skiffle album inspired by “Rock Island
Line” that’s really more or less a junk band album. So, you can say that it was
influenced, but what is missing, the significant thing that is
missing in the United States of America to make skiffle
an indigenous British thing, is an entire cohort of 12-year-olds playing
Lead Belly songs. You never, you never had that. And I’m not saying
that out of disrespect, I’m just saying this
is the thing.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: That makes
skiffle different and special. That’s missing in the
United States of America. I can’t think of any 50s
movement that had that kind of reach so far into youth
culture as skiffle did, because that’s the
most significant thing about skiffle as well. It’s not what happened
in 55-56-57, it’s what happens
in 64-65-66-67. That’s the significance of it. It’s what they go on to do.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: And I don’t
think there’s, you know, you may know better than
me, but I can’t think of a, of a genre in American music
that had that same dynamic.>>Stephen Winick:
Like prepared kids for.>>Billy Bragg: That dynamic.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah, yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, so
I mean you know it’s all, and it hasn’t happened
since in my country. It was a, it was a unique moment and that’s the real reason why
we need to understand skiffle and appreciate skiffle. It has that depth to it. It’s not just a guy
made a record and.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: By
The Beatles, you know. It was just the usual
way the story is told.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah. Well, let’s talk a little
bit about the process of writing the book
of doing a book. So, one of the things
that I found interesting in your description to me
was your use of social media to connect with former
skifflers.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. That was, that was
really great that was, because there’s a photographic
archive of some of which I use in the book that
was put together by a guy called Eric Winsor
who ran a folk magazine, and that had been inherited
by Ian Anderson at Folk Roots and he has a really great
Facebook page where he puts up all these old photographs and
he had a specific skiffle album which had some lovely
pictures of Jack Elliott, Big Bill Broonzy, and the City
Ramblers and all these guys and at the, at the Skiffle and
Blues Club, the original Skiffle and Blues Club and, of
course, under these photographs in the conversation there were
people saying “I was there.” You know, “I remember these. That’s me in the corner.”>>Mary Sue Twohy: My goodness.>>Billy Bragg: You
know, I’m like, so I just contacted
those people.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: And was able
to go interview them and find out from their perspective
what was going on which I don’t think I would
been able to do otherwise. But also, I did a lot
of research on eBay.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: British eBay,
In the UK if you put “skiffle” into the search engine and
“vinyl” it throws up all EPs because they’re, you know,
they’re cheap as chips and I was interested in them. You can pick them
for you know a fiver.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: And because
skiffle comes at a time when they were moving
between the 10-inch 78 format to the 7-inch vinyl format and so what I did was
every time Donegan put out 2 singles they complied
them on to an EP and put it out in the 7-inch version. And to encourage
people to buy it, it comes in a very nice picture
sleeve with a lot of details on the back; a lot
of information where it’s recorded
and stuff like that. So, there’s a lot of these
skiffle EPs out there and it was very, very helpful
for chronology and dating and you know who
played what and so.>>Stephen Winick: So
people scan the whole sleeve [multiple speakers].>>Billy Bragg: Of course,
they’re trying to search it.>>Stephen Winick:
Yeah, right, yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah,
[multiple speakers]. Sometimes they scan the label.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: That’s
even better. So, yeah that was
you know the amount of screenshots I got from, I
probably got more screenshots from skiffle than I did
from the British library.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: It’s
funny isn’t it?>>Stephen Winick: That is,
that’s really strange right>>>>Billy Bragg: That’s
really strange.>>Mary Sue Twohy: And
‘Pete’ Frame, he has.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, ‘Pete’ Frame is a key
character for me in this. He wrote a book called
“A Restless Generation.” ‘Pete’ Frame is famous in
the UK for constructing rock and roll family trees.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yes. Handwritten.>>Billy Bragg: Handwritten.>>Stephen Winick: Those
are amazing, yeah, yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: My
favorite one he did, he did a Billy Bragg once.>>Stephen Winick: Very nice.>>Billy Bragg: Which
was just me. Just me in the middle. It just said “Billy
Bragg guitar, vocal.”>>Stephen Winick: That’s nice.>>Billy Bragg: But
he gave that a number, because he gives them all
numbers and everything. He did it for a songbook
of mine, Billy Bragg family
tree, just me on my own. I was so proud of it, yeah. And he’s a lovely geezer, so
he’s a lovely geezer and he’s, he wrote “The Restless
Generation” which is probably the
best book on that period in our musical history. And he dealt with skiffle, but he didn’t follow Ken
Colyer to New Orleans. He referred to that and he, you
know, he put all the characters in there and it was a
guiding light for me, but I kind of took a chunk
of what he was doing and dug down from there,
you know, dug down. And some, well a couple of the
reviews have compared my book to “The Restless Generation” and I’ll tell you
that’s a great honor. A real honor. And there’s a couple of
good books on skiffle, one written by Chas
McDevitt whose skiffle inside of the story. Chas was actually a rival of
Donegans and he had a hit with “Freight Train” here in the
US and another one called the “The Skiffle Craze” by
Mike Dewe who’s an academic at the University
of Aberystwyth, but both of them experienced
skiffle and their books are from the perspective of
someone who was there. What I didn’t have was
context and often what I do with the book is
put it into context. I’m most proud of the fact that “Rock Island Line”
comes out in chapter 13. You know, halfway
through the book.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: It doesn’t
start with Donegan, you know. Most of the, most
of the biographies of British rock stars
mentioned skiffle and the treat “Rock Island Line” as a
singularity whereas, it wasn’t. It was a moment of many
forces coming together over a long period suddenly
sparking something and I tried to put skiffle in and that’s
the little point of the book is to put it in its proper
context in British pop culture.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah. Well, there seems to be
kind of a, a cyclical nature to your becoming an expert
on skiffle in the sense that, you know, you started out
with this interest in Simon and Garfunkel who had learned
from Martin Carthy who.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: Was
a skiffler and something that also struck me was that,
was that one of the first hits that was made out of one
of your songs was made by Kirsty MacColl.>>Billy Bragg: That’s right.>>Stephen Winick: And
her dad is in your book.>>Billy Bragg: Ewan
MacColl yeah.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. It is very strange actually
the way “what goes around, comes around” in folk music, but I mean I’ve always
been interested in skiffle in the sense that it always
had so many similarities to me with punk rock and I think
it really helped me to look at skiffle through that
prism when I was writing it to understand how, because of
my own experience with punk, how a musical movement
might empower someone; it might me think, you
know, I am now at the center of our culture which is
how I felt with punk, you know, had a dynamic to it. So, I think that,
that really helped. And in trying to articulate
it to a young generation and to you know Americans
and other people from abroad, I think using punk as
a point of reference at least we have something that
we, you know, a common framework in which to explain
where this is going.>>Mary Sue Twohy: The, in the
mid50s, there were over 25, actually more than 25.>>Billy Bragg: Fifty
thousand possibly, 50, up to 30 to 50,000.>>Mary Sue Twohy: So
where are they today?>>Billy Bragg: Well, one
of them, one of them was on the cliff just before I came
here, an old bald guy passed me and he said “I’ve just
read your book sonny.” And I was like, “Oh, great.” And he told me about when he was in a skiffle band he
didn’t [inaudible] doing it. And most of them just,
that was their moment. Their moment was, I mean,
the band on the front cover. I mean this is a stock picture.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
I love this picture.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah. We chose this, this is a
brilliant picture of us, but part of the reason why
is because in the background, you probably can’t
see it, there’s lots of old people laughing.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah,
yeah [multiple speakers].>>Billy Bragg: It really
sums up the generation. Well about 2 weeks ago I got
a Tweet from the son-in-law of the bloke playing
the washboard, and last week just before I came
I had chat with him on the phone and the band are called
The Wild Five and they’re from Stockport in, just
outside of Manchester. So yeah, they kind of in their, in their youth they were
touched by a fire, you know. And they didn’t all
go on to play music. They, very few of them
went on to have careers, but all of them were
there in that moment and that was their moment. It was the thing
that we a part of and they have never
forgotten it.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: And they’re
still proud of it and you talk to these old guys and they,
you know, they remember as if it was yesterday. I mean, they won one
of the competitions, one of the skiffle competitions.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
Oh, that’s right.>>Billy Bragg: That’s what
this photograph celebrates. It was them coming back from
winning a competition, you know. And it really meant something
to them and in some ways it kind of defined their youth in
the way punk defines my youth and I know I bore my
family with talking about The Clash and The Jam. My son’s like “Awe,
dad you know I can’t. Will you stop?” He’s only jealous he never saw
them, you know, it’s like a lot of those things, but so you
know they most of them went on with their lives, but they
all somewhere have a picture they show their grandchildren
of the day they, they played on Six-Five Special or something like
that, you know.>>Mary Sue Twohy: That’s right.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Are there
any skiffle clubs still in existence?>>Billy Bragg: No not really. No. I would say that impulse
has moved on to other forms of music now, Grime would
be the nearest to skiffle in the UK [inaudible] in
its invigorating dynamic, empowerment and allows that
urban, Black urban youth to communicate with the
rest of the world in a way that the skifflers sent
out a message there. The Grime community is still
using music to do that. Most teenagers now are using
digital social media platforms, but Grime still has edge
and still has power. It was the Grime I [inaudible]
Corbyn in the election. Nobody else did a pop only
the weird folkies like me. But, yeah it was very
interesting because it seems, it says to me that they’re
still, they still believe that music has something to say.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: You know, because it’s people keep asking
where’s all the protest music, but they’re problem is
I think they’re looking for White boys with guitars.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: The cheering
is over there with itself.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
It certainly exists.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: It does. Yeah, it is everywhere.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
It’s everywhere, yeah.>>Billy Bragg: But it
just doesn’t have the same, the same cultural force. I think, I think music
has lost its van Gogh with the new culture. It’s still there and it still
has important things to say and bring people together or make them feel
they’re not alone, but it’s not the social medium, the single soul searching
medium was in the 20th century where they actually encapsulate
everything from skiffle to you know politics
and football and love and everything. You know, that, that
time has passed.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah. Well, let’s talk
about a couple of sort of maybe related projects.>>Billy Bragg: Sure.>>Stephen Winick: I’m
assuming that the album “Shine a Light” was, it came
out of the research textbook.>>Billy Bragg: It did, yeah. I was looking at the
repertoire of the skifflers. I became aware of
the huge number of American railroad songs that
there were and the importance of the railroad in
American culture. That kind of got me thinking
about, about making them and I was already writing
the book when I got invited to do a photo documentary to
celebrate the 90th birthday of Robert Frank, a
Swiss-American photographer. And this magazine called
“Aperture” hooked me up with an American photographer
named Alec Soth to go on a journey and Alec wanted
to come out on the road with me and I’m like “Alec,
that is so boring mate.” You know, day-after-day. He said, “Well, why don’t
we go somewhere then. Where have you always wanted
to go and you’ve never been in the United States
of America?” I was already writing the
book them, and I said, “I tell you where I want to go.” And I said, “I want
to go to Rock Island where the Rock Island
Line comes from.”>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: And he
said, “Where is that in?” I said, “I don’t know. Go and find out.” So, it turns out
it’s on the Illinois.>>Stephen Winick: That’s right.>>Billy Bragg: Iowa
border on the Mississippi. It’s significance is that’s
where the first bridge was built out of the Mississippi and
we did a drive from there to Cummins Prison Farm where
“Rock Island Line” was recorded.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Oh, wow.>>Billy Bragg: In 1935. We followed the route of the
railway, there was nobody there. And it was during that
that I came to realize that there was only one
passenger train a day in Little Rock, through Little
Rock which really blew my mind, because you know I live in a
country where I’m 140 miles from London in a rural area and there’s 2 trains
every hour to London. It’s just like I
couldn’t believe it. And when the train came,
the train came at midnight; the train guy out of Los
Angeles, they’re going to Chicago from Los Angeles. So, we went down there to play
Midnight Special while it left, you know, because we thought it
was funny and the train came in and it just sat there
for 20 minutes. People with their smokes
and freight trains went by and it transpired that
there’s so few passenger trains that when they get to a railway
station there is a couple of platforms, they have a wait
time while the freight trains go by. They don’t just stop and
pick-up passengers and leave. They stop and just sit there until all the freight behind
them has gone by, and then they.>>Stephen Winick: So, they go
in the hole essentially like.>>Billy Bragg: Exactly. And I realized then that
we would have, you know, you would have time to
get off and find a space and record a song if
you were so inclined. So, I played with Joe Henry
to do that and that’s more or less what we did from Chicago
to Los Angeles via San Antonio in March of last year.>>Stephen Winick: Wow.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Thanks to
coordinating with the porters.>>Billy Bragg: Well, yeah
we had to talk to the porters on the train and explain to them
we weren’t actually getting off, that we were you
know making a record. Nobody seemed to mind. We didn’t, we didn’t get
permission from anyone. We just went and did it. But you know, 2 guys
playing acoustic guitars in a railway station is not a
big deal anyway is it really?>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah,
That’s kind of like.>>Mary Sue Twohy: No.>>Stephen Winick: That
happens all the time.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, exactly.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Exactly.>>Billy Bragg: I was
surprised no one came over and gave us a couple
of quarters, yeah.>>Stephen Winick: It’s the
recording equipment that’s a little weird.>>Billy Bragg: Well,
but that’s.>>Stephen Winick: But, yeah.>>Billy Bragg: You know, but
that was just like a tree thing with a couple of mics on them. It was.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: Of
guys videoing; no one really paid us any mind.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: There was so few people getting
on and off anyway. Yeah, some of the passengers
who were having a smoke kind of watched us, you know,
they’d follow us in and watch us doing it, but
really, no one really cared. I mean, they were all busy doing
what they were doing, you know, buying coffee and stuff like
that, get back on the train. It was a lot of fun actually.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Okay, you
know a lot of people who tour like yourself and make brand new
recordings regularly are usually not riding 400-page
historical books,>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
Can you illuminate us on how this happened?>>Billy Bragg: Well, I’ve been
doing it for a longtime now. You know, sort of 33 odd years
really since I first came to America and I was
already doing it for 5 years in a little punk
band before that, and when you’ve done
something like “Tooth and Nail” which is quite a big project,
you know, there’s a lot of blood and silver involved in that. You need to do something to take
your mind off of it, you know, just fall into the next project. You need to sort of
clear the air a bit. So, in order to just sort
of slow things down a bit, being able to say I’m sorry but he’s not available
he’s writing a book, isn’t actually a bad way to
putting off possibly being at one’s beck and call. So, I had already
written a book before. I wrote a book called “The
Progressive Patriot” in 2006. This book actually I was a
lot more disciplined on it. I worked out how to do it
in a way that was practical to family life and
getting things done. What I basically did was I’d
go once a month to London to the British library where
they have all old music papers and jazz magazines
and stuff like that, and I would some research there
and then most days I would write from 3 until 5 and
then from 6 until 8. So, you know, I did all the sort
of day-to-day stuff before that. I didn’t always, you
know, in the 3 until 5, I didn’t always get my thread,
find my thread, but generally from 6 until 8 I usually got
to write you know 500 words, sometimes better than that.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Great.>>Billy Bragg: So, yeah. So, it was a you know and then
I would have a break on weekends and so I would come back to it
on Monday again all, you know. There’s a lot of
reading involved. I’m kind of, that’s kind of one my favorite
hobbies anyway reading, so I kind of enjoy that and because I didn’t know a huge
amount about traditional jazz or jazz period, it was a lot
of discovery for me as well which was interesting, you
know, and sort of reading. A key text was Samuel Charters’
book about New Orleans A Trumpet on the Corner, “A Trumpet Around
the Corner” which just came out about 3 or 4 years ago
which is just brilliant. I was hoping to speak
to Sam because he played on that Dave Van
Ronk skiffle record, but sadly he passed away. He passed away last year I
think and he was in Sweden. I was trying to get over there
to talk to him, but yeah that’s, that’s really, really
a great book. And so yeah, it was,
it was very engaging. I really enjoyed it, you know. It was something that
I; I already sort of knew the Ken Colyer story. I knew, for the 50th
anniversary of the recording of “Rock Island Line” I
had written an article for the Guardian because
Lonnie Donegan had passed away and there was a big, big
gig at the Royal Albert Hall and his widow had got in touch
with me and asked me if I come and represent Woody, because
Donegan was the first person that put Woody in
the charts at home.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yes.>>Billy Bragg: And I sang “Dead
or Alive” with his whole band, and the Guardian asked if I
would write something about, about Donegan and it was
literally was the week of the 50th anniversary. So, I went back to the
studio which is still there. It’s now the English [inaudible]
Space, and I managed to get in touch with Hugh
Mendl the producer. So, I had a firsthand account
of the recording session which I think is as fair a
recount, there’s a number of different recounts about
what happened, but Hugh sounds to me the most likely
turn of events. So, yeah so I had
kind of those pieces, but I wasn’t really sure
how they fit together. And the story of
the first generation of British teenagers is kind
of out there and, you know, some of my relatives
were involved in that. My uncle Dave and my auntie
Chris when they were dating went to see the “Rock Around the
Clock” movie and were involved in turning on the hoses in the
cinema when the riot broke out.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Oh,
so they were there.>>Billy Bragg: They
were there, yeah. So.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: So,
I got to sit down and talk to them about that.>>Stephen Winick:
That’s great, yeah.>>Billy Bragg: That
was really interesting. Much to my cousin’s
annoyance when she found out that I had this long
chat, I said to my cousin “I’ve got it on the phone now. I’ll mail it to you.” And they never told
me about that, so I’m like okay alright I’m
going to, I’ll mail it to you. So, yeah but it was
great, because they did, they had seen Buddy
Holly as well and they saw Cliff Richard you
know it was really great talking to them. So, yeah I really enjoyed it
and I met some amazing people. Hilda Simms.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Who’s was in
the City Ramblers, you know, she was sort of a, she was not
so Irish, she was a Communist and she had been to the Soviet
Union and stuff like that. And what she wanted to show
me where their original house where they lived was was
near the science museum and the science museum added an
exhibit of Russian cosmonauts from the 1960s, so I took Hilda. We went all around there. The exhibition was
just brilliant, we had such a great time and
then we did the interview in the science museum canteen. She was great.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: And still is. She’s still going gigs actually.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Did you
record those interviews or?>>Billy Bragg: Yeah,
I did yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Oh. So you have an archive.>>Billy Bragg: I do have
a little archive, yeah. In fact, I think my, I
might have my Van Morrison on interview still
on my phone actually.>>Stephen Winick: Well you know
Todd whom you met earlier is our acquisitions coordinator.>>Billy Bragg: Oh.>>Stephen Winick: So, we
might get in touch with him.>>Billy Bragg: Oh, alright. Well.>>Mary Sue Twohy: That
cat is out of the bag.>>Billy Bragg: The good
news is I still have them. The bad news is I’m a
really bad interviewer, because I talk across people. I listen back and I say,
“What are you doing?” Why do you, there’s a memory
coming there and you just talk, because I’m used to
being interviewed. You can’t help it. I’m like, I’ll sit
back and think “Oh, why don’t you just shut up?” “Shut up already.” “Don’t talk.” But yeah, I was, it was great
having that sort of opportunity to talk one-to-one with people. It threw-up some strange things. One British rock star of
the 1960s who I had a point of reference of him in the 1960s
saying how much Lonnie Donegan was a huge influence on him. Pointblank denied he
ever even played skiffle and I had to say okay. It’s not in the book, but.>>Stephen Winick: But I’ve got
this picture here in the book.>>Billy Bragg: I just
have to accept that.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: I
couldn’t really.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow,
yeah that’s interesting. Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: But I
have spoke to other people who interviewed him and said
yeah he’s always winding people up, so. I was like, okay.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Wow.>>Billy Bragg: He
shall remain nameless. It’s not fair on him.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: But, yeah
I was like, “Come on man. Don’t do this to me.”>>Stephen Winick: Yeah.>>Billy Bragg: Oh, yeah.>>Stephen Winick: So, you’ve
got a recent song out as well.>>Billy Bragg: I do, yeah. I just released a new
song based on the events of last year called the
“The Sleep of Reason” which is I actually
started from an etching by the Spanish artist Francisco
Goya called the “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”
and it kind of resonated with the events of last year
what with Brexit and Trump’s a; you know I started sort
of dropping singles now. I’ve got another one coming out
next month and the month after. It seems to be a practical
way of getting stuff out that has too much
[inaudible] than making records.>>Stephen Winick: Right.>>Billy Bragg: Just put the
songs out when they’re ready.>>Stephen Winick: So, is
that what you’re doing now? You’re doing?>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: Song-by-song?>>Billy Bragg: One
of them will come out between now and Christmas. And we’ll probably compile
them on a CD probably.>>Stephen Winick: Alright.>>Mary Sue Twohy:
When you heard a band at the Tonder Festival
in 2008, what was going on when you heard this band?>>Billy Bragg: I was walking
around the festival having a, trying to sauce out what
the audience might be like for my performance which
I usually do when I turn up at a festival, and in the
main tent I heard this skiffle band playing. I thought, “Blimey. I didn’t know they had
skiffles still in Denmark.” And the main stage is
well-above, it was Carolina and the Chocolate Drops. And I finally realized
that, you know, what they were doing
is the same intention. I mean, it’s not
exactly the same sound. I think they’re moving
towards to sort of a classic string band sound,
but the material and the vibe and the enthusiasm, I
you know, close your eyes and you would listen to
the skifflers really. I was really surprised by it.>>Stephen Winick: And
they come straight here to do their research.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, I bet.>>Stephen Winick: They’ve been
in our Reading Room quite a bit.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah, yeah. Yeah and I do a great
job of it yeah. I do a great job too.>>Stephen Winick:
Alright, so what is next in your, in your agenda?>>Billy Bragg: Well,
I’m putting these things out over the next 6 months, so
I’ve got the first 3 written, I’ve got to write the next 3. And then next year I’m sort
of looking at, you know, doing a bit of festivals
over the summer. I’ve got some very
interesting opportunities there and the possibility of making
a documentary about skiffle.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Ah yes.>>Stephen Winick: Oh.>>Billy Bragg: We’ll
see if it comes off.>>Stephen Winick:
That would be great.>>Billy Bragg: I mean,
people talk about these things and they don’t happen, but
it would be a lovely thing to do particularly now,
because a lot of the, you know, 60 years ago and a lot of the
protagonists are old now those that are still with us, so it
would be great to get that done and maybe talk to
some of the, you know, people like Paul McCarthy. I did have an interview booked
with Paul, but we couldn’t; the two of us couldn’t
make it happen. I never did get around
to talking to him, but he was willing
to talk about it so I might be able
to engage him.>>Stephen Winick: Yeah. Wonderful.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Mary Sue Twohy: Thank you.>>Stephen Winick: Alright,
well I would like to thank you for doing this interview
with us.>>Billy Bragg: Yeah.>>Stephen Winick: And to thank
Mary Sue also for being part of it and this has
been an interview for the American
Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. Thank you Billy Bragg.>>Billy Bragg: Thank you.>>Stephen Winick: Thank
you Mary Sue Twohy.>>Billy Bragg: I
had a great time.>>Stephen Winick:
And my name is Steve.>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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