What Would Woody Do?

Englishman Billy Bragg has just arrived in North America and barely has time to talk. And Bragg, as any fan can tell you, likes to talk. When his record company publicist cuts into the call after a mere ten minutes to announce that we have only five more, Bragg does something else he likes to do: He jokes. "That's my conscience talking."

Truth be told, Bragg's conscience is always talking, and singing as well. He emerged from the late-1970s punk rock revolution as a folk rocker who tries to take the best values of the old political left -- for which folk music provided the sound track -- and help inspire a new leftist ethos for the modern world. It made him the natural choice to sift through the Woody Guthrie archives and set some of the folk music (and left-wing) giant's many leftover lyrics to new music, with the help of Wilco, for the two recent and acclaimed Mermaid Avenue albums.

Now he's back with England, Half English, his first new set of his own songs in six years. It explores the quandary of national identity at a time when the issue is becoming heated in his native country and much of the rest of Europe. And he confronts in song the sometimes incendiary mix of nationalism and identity while neo-Nazi and racist politicians are gaining electoral footholds in his home country.

Bragg admits that national identity and patriotism are tough subjects to grapple with. "For my audience, who are leftish, talking about nationalism is very difficult for them, because they feel it's synonymous with racism. So they're a bit skeptical about it."

He does believe there is an answer, and it's not the one being offered by England's rising right-wing National Party or Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. "My sense is that we should be trying to create an inclusive sense of identity. The only way to do that is to start talking about what we think it means to be English," he insists. "My sense is that it has to do more with where you are than where you are from."

National identity and patriotism have also become heated notions in America since 9/11. And the best approach to the situations here and in Europe, for Bragg and people who feel similarly, might be to ask a simple question: What would Woody do?

The answer Bragg offers is something akin to the sentiment found in Guthrie's national anthem, "This Land Is Your Land." He wants to speak for "progressive patriots," he says. "Can I coin a phrase there?" He believes you can love your country and also show it by speaking out about what you see as wrong, be it race-baiting or warmongering.

"I think of myself as a patriot," he declares. "But I think of myself as a reasonable patriot. And that you and I could have a reasonable talk about my country and your country. I could tell you the things I like about my country, and you could tell me the things that you think suck about my country."

Bragg certainly has questions about what's going on here right now, especially the way that those opposed to the war have been declared by some to be unpatriotic. "I think, 'What would Woody Guthrie say about all that?' I think he would be able to make the case for being patriotic without supporting the war effort.

"And in some ways I have that problem," observes Bragg. As a political musician, and a highly British one at that, "my job over the next few weeks is explaining to an American audience that, like most people in my country, we totally empathize with what happened to the United States of America on September 11. The magnitude. The shock. The horror of it. We totally empathize with how you feel, and why you feel angry about it. We accept that. But that doesn't mean that because we empathize with you that we have to support the Bush administration and what they want to do. And it's going to be down to me to try and express that difference."

England, Half English, its title taken from a book by the influential U.K. writer Colin MacInnes, goes so far as to declare in song, "Take Down the Union Jack." Or in other words, narrow nationalism and imperialism no longer apply when modern nations have become multicultural and the world has grown smaller. And lest you worry that Bragg lapses into stridency with his politics, remember: He also likes to joke. "What could be more British than here's a picture of my bum?" he quips in the song.

And Bragg not only talks the talk of a democratic idealist but also walks the walk in his own affairs. The songwriter credits the music on a number of the new album's tracks to his band the Blokes (which includes a Texan, famed British expat rocker and current Austinite Ian McLagan of Small Faces fame). "That's the great thing about having a band: We jam," notes Bragg, who for many years played solo. "Several of them have worked in world music bands, so we were able to actually come up with the tune for the song 'England, Half English' from an Algerian folk song."

The number might not sit too well with the homeland security gang. When Bragg asked guitarist Lu Edmonds what the original song was about, "he sang me the Arabic, which says, 'My country, my country, what a beautiful country you are.' I said, 'Oh, brilliant. We'll put that in.' So we actually sing that in Arabic at the end."

Such things may raise red flags with the authorities, but Bragg is more concerned with raising a white flag of peace and internationalism outside the existing power structures. "We as people need to talk to one another as individuals and talk to one another as nations as well, beyond the discourse that politicians are having," he says. "I'd like to think that in some way my role is to bring news from England to Houston, and take information from Houston and go back to England, and say, 'Well, listen. I've just been there. Don't tell me all the Americans are warmongers. I was playing night after night after night to full houses of people who clearly feel as ambiguous about this issue as we do. They don't like Saddam Hussein. They don't like what's happening in the Middle East. But they don't want America and Britain to go charging in there like the Seventh Cavalry and start God knows what conflagration there.'

"That's my role, and I think in that sense I'm a bit like Woody," concludes Bragg. "Because he was taking information from Oklahoma to California, from California to New York City, and from New York City to the world."

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Rob Patterson