Billy Bragg talks freedom, skiffle, and the enduring power of empathy

Since the arrival of his 1983 debut LP, Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, Billy Bragg has carved a singular path through England’s songwriter landscape. With songs such as “A New England,” “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” and “There Is Power In A Union” Bragg draws equally from Woody Guthrie’s working-class Americana anthems and Joe Strummer’s indomitable punk spirit to flesh out his own distinctly British take on love songs and left-wing politics. His songs are bound by punk’s instincts and intellect, but every melody resonates with warmth and human compassion.

Bragg is also the author of several books, including his two most recent titles, The Three Dimensions of Freedom and Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (Faber & Faber). The Three Dimensions of Freedom functions like a good power-pop song. Bragg strips away any unnecessary verbiage to riff on the nuances and responsibilities that freedom of expression requires in a healthy society: liberty, equality, and, most importantly, accountability. It’s a Pocket-sized counterpart to Roots, Radicals, and Rockers, which offers a deep dive into the phenomenon of skiffle—the U.K.’s proto rockabilly phenomenon—that swept over the U.K. in the wake of World War II.

Although each of these books delve into wholly different realms of writing and research, each one is connected by a subconscious arc that is the need for human expression, from the personal to the political—from Lead Belly writing songs to governors in the 1920s begging for a prison pardon in Roots, Radicals, and Rockers, to exploring how post-Internet perceptions of freedom of speech have evolved in the U.S. and the U.K.

After calling off an Australian tour to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak, on May 6, Bragg joined me via Zoom for an A Cappella Books-sponsored conversation and audience Q&A. Press play above to view our discussion about the influence of punk rock on Bragg’s music and writing, the idea of separating the art from the artist, and the enduring power of empathy.

A Cappella Books has a limited supply of each book with signed bookplates. Check the shop’s website for details.

A conversation with Billy Bragg on Wednesday, May 6

A Cappella Books proudly presents a special virtual event with legendary singer-songwriter, activist and author, Billy Bragg.

Bragg will join Atlanta music journalist Chad Radford for a Zoom discussion of his career and two most recent books, The Three Dimensions of Freedom (2019) and Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (2017), followed by an online Q&A session.

A Cappella will host the event on Wednesday, May 6 at 6 p.m. (EST). Tickets are limited to 150 guests. Pre-order a copy of either title to obtain your private invitation link via email. Each book comes with a bookplate signed by Billy Bragg.

For full details and to purchase, visit A Cappella Books’ Events page.

About The Three Dimensions of Freedom
At a time when opinion trumps facts and truth is treated as nothing more than another perspective, free speech has become a battleground. While authoritarians and algorithms threaten democracy, we argue over who has the right to speak.

To protect ourselves from encroaching tyranny, we must look beyond this one-dimensional notion of what it means to be free and, by reconnecting liberty to equality and accountability, restore the individual agency engendered by the three dimensions of freedom.

About Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World
Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is the first book to explore this phenomenon in depth – a meticulously researched and joyous account that explains how skiffle sparked a revolution that shaped pop music as we have come to know it.

It’s a story of jazz pilgrims and blues blowers, Teddy Boys and beatnik girls, coffee-bar bohemians and refugees from the McCarthyite witch-hunts. Billy traces how the guitar came to the forefront of music in the UK and led directly to the British Invasion of the US charts in the 1960s.

Emerging from the trad-jazz clubs of the early ’50s, skiffle was adopted by kids who growing up during the dreary, post-war rationing years. These were Britain’s first teenagers, looking for a music of their own in a pop culture dominated by crooners and mediated by a stuffy BBC. Lonnie Donegan hit the charts in 1956 with a version of “Rock Island Line” and soon sales of guitars rocketed from 5,000 to 250,000 a year.

Like punk rock that would flourish two decades later, skiffle was a do-it-yourself music. All you needed were three guitar chords and you could form a group, with mates playing tea-chest bass and washboard as a rhythm section.

About the Author
Billy Bragg has been a tireless recording artist, performer and political campaigner for over thirty years. His albums include his punk-charged debut, Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy, Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, Don’t Try This at Home, the treatise on national identity timed to coincide with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, England, Half English, and his stripped-down latest, Tooth and Nail. Billy has enjoyed a No. 1 hit single, had a street named after him, been the subject of a “South Bank Show,” appeared onstage at Wembley Stadium, curated Left Field at Glastonbury, shared spotted dick with a Cabinet Minister in the House of Commons cafeteria, been mentioned in Bob Dylan’s memoir, and shaken hands with the Queen. At their best, his songs present ‘the perfect Venn diagram between the political and the personal’ (Guardian). Billy published A Lover Sings with Faber in 2015, containing over seventy of his best-known lyrics, selected and annotated by the author.