Billy Bragg On Skiffle, The Movement That Brought Guitar To British Radio

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 8, 2017 10:19 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is British songwriter and singer Billy Bragg, and he's brought his guitar to play some old and new songs. He started recording in the early '80s and was influenced by punk rock as well as folk music. He's known for his love songs and his political songs. Woody Guthrie's daughter asked Bragg to set some of her father's previously unheard lyrics to music. The result was Bragg's 1998 album with Wilco called "Mermaid Avenue."

Bragg's latest album, which also features Joe Henry, is a collection of songs about trains. Now Bragg has written a new book about the British music movement known as skiffle, which most Americans are unfamiliar with. But it's music that inspired some of the most important British rockers who emerged in the '60s, including the Beatles, Van Morrison and Pete Townshend. Skiffle was the youth music in 1950s England that was basically English performers playing their versions of American blues and folk music. Billy Bragg's book is called "Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World."

Billy Bragg, welcome to FRESH AIR. And thank you so much for bringing your guitar with you. I want to ask you to start by playing a song that you first knew as a skiffle song or a song at least that's related to skiffle and that was popularized in England through skiffle. So what song would you like to do?

BILLY BRAGG: I think it would have to be "The Midnight Special," I think.

GROSS: OK.

BRAGG: (Singing) Wake up early in the morning when the ding-dong ring. Go walking to the table. I see the same damn thing. Knife and fork upon the table - ain't but nothing in the pan. Say anything about it, and get in trouble with the man. Shine a light on. Shine a light on. Let the midnight special shine its ever-loving light on me. Shine a light on, and it won't be long. Shine a light on. Oh, let the midnight special shine its ever-loving light on me.

GROSS: What a great way to get started (laughter). Thank you. Thank you for doing that.

BRAGG: My pleasure.

GROSS: So tell us what skiffle is because I never - I have to say - until I read your book, I never quite got it.

BRAGG: That's why I've written a book to it, yeah. That's exactly, there, the whole justification. Skiffle, in its simplest terms, is a bunch of British schoolboys in the mid-'50s playing Lead Belly's repertoire.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRAGG: That's the most simplest explanation - on acoustic guitars. A more complex definition of it would be the means by which British pop went from being a jazz-influenced confection for adults in which young people were offered novelty songs to a guitar-lead music for teenagers. It's the introduction of the guitar into British pop culture.

GROSS: And it's really, like, American roots music, American, you know, blues and country music translated into British music.

BRAGG: That's where it starts, yeah. It does start with the - well, as I say, it starts with Lead Belly's repertoire, really. I mean Lead Belly was probably the greatest folk musician America produced. He was, you know - he played so many great styles. He played - so much more than just a blues man.

But what happened was when British kids got hold of that, they also started introducing some of their own folk music - sea shanties, calypso music. There was a large migration of people from the Caribbean from 1940 and onwards. They brought guitars with them - and a lot of cowboy songs as well.

Before skiffle, the only place you'd really hear a guitar being played on the radio in the U.K. would be if it was a singing cowboy. Sometimes you might hear an old blues guy playing up Big Bill Broonzy or a calypsonian. It was unheard of for a British artist to play guitar. And then this guy Lonnie Donegan comes along and has a hit with "Rock Island Line" - again, a Lead Belly song. And that kind of kicks the whole thing off.

GROSS: Let's hear that recording. So this is Lonnie Donegan recorded in 1954, "Rock Island Line."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK ISLAND LINE")

LONNIE DONEGAN: (Singing) And I'll tell you where I'm going, boy - down the Rock Island Line. She's a mighty good road. The Rock Island Line is the road to ride, yes. The Rock Island Line - she's a mighty good road. And if you want to ride it, you got to ride it like you find it. Get your ticket at the station on the Rock Island Line. I may be right, may be wrong. You know you're going to miss me when I'm gone.

(Singing) Down the Rock Island Line, she's a mighty good road. The Rock Island Line is the road to ride, yeah. The Rock Island line is a mighty good road. And if you want to ride it, got to ride it like you find it. Get your ticket at the station on the Rock Island Line. Hallelujah, I'm safe from sin. The good Lord's coming forth to see me again. Hey, down the Rock Island Line...

GROSS: So that's Lonnie Donegan's 1954 recording of "Rock Island Line," which is a turning point in British music because it kind of really kicks off the skiffle movement. And my guest, Billy Bragg, who you know as a singer and songwriter, has a new book about skiffle that's called "Roots, Radicals And Rockers."

So what was the impact of that song, of that recording in England?

BRAGG: It was pretty huge because what happened in 1955, '56 was the first generation of British kids who were born during the war left school. And they left school at a time of high employment. So they were able to find work pretty quickly. So they were getting paid more, sometimes more than their parents. And they, you know - the only expense they had was giving housekeeping to their mom.

So they had a lot of money to spend things on. So sales of cosmetics, of records, of clothes kind of took off in the mid-'50s. And this generation really is the first generation to identify themselves as distinct teenagers from between children and adults. Before, it was a kind of a blurred line.

And also, they were wholly working-class because the middle-class and the upper-class kids in that period tended to go to university and then into a long training for professions that deferred payment until they were adults - you know, like the law and doctors. So what we're seeing is young, working-class people with spending power. And these are people who have grown up in a time of rationing.

GROSS: 'Cause of the war, yeah.

BRAGG: Food ration - yeah, the war. Well, it's not just the war, Terry. Food rationing doesn't end in the U.K. until just before Lonnie Donegan records "Rock Island Line" in 1954. So someone like John Lennon, who was born in 1940, has got to the age of 14 before he's been able to go into a sweet shop and buy whatever he wants.

GROSS: Is this why Spam was so popular (laughter)?

BRAGG: I'm not sure it was popular. It was eaten a lot.

GROSS: (Laughter) Why'd they eat it?

BRAGG: But I don't think - popular isn't the word we're looking for. But the point is that they've kind of - they've led this kind of terribly restrained childhood. And all of a sudden, they're in the metaphorical sweet shop, and they're looking for things to define themselves. And for young women, that's - they choose their own spice. They want their own social spice. And they find the cappuccino bars.

But for young men, what defines them as different from their parents is the guitar - picking up the guitar and playing this roots - predominately African-American roots music. And it defines them as completely different from what their parents are listening to and what's on the radio at the time because youth culture was mediated by the BBC with a rather staid, kind of schoolmistressy (ph) kind of attitude towards young people.

And Lonnie Donegan, as you heard from that song - he really does let go there. And so it's kind of like the early sort of rockabilly was in the United States of America. In fact that song was recorded just a week after Elvis Presley recorded "That's All Right, Mama" for "The Sun Sessions" in Memphis in 1954, July 1954.

GROSS: So I have to say. Growing up in America, the only way I knew Lonnie Donegan is the novelty hit that he had here called "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight?)" It was - I mean I always really hated that. And because I hated it so much, would you like to play a few bars to familiarize our audience with it?

(LAUGHTER)

BRAGG: I might be able to remember the chorus, maybe. Let's see. (Singing) Does your chewing gum lose it flavor on the bedpost overnight? Does your - ah, I can't remember. For the life of me, I can't remember. At least...

GROSS: If your mother says don't chew it, do you swallow it in fright?

BRAGG: In spite, isn't it?

GROSS: Oh, in spite? OK.

BRAGG: Is it fright? It might be spite, yeah, rather than fright. I think it's spite.

GROSS: It's spite, oh, yeah.

BRAGG: But you've got to understand that Lonnie Donegan's "Chewing Gum" period was his equivalent of Elvis going up to Las Vegas. We tend not to think about that. We like to remember him in his original "Rock Island Line." I mean, you know, he's kind of in the charts where every other British singer in the charts is a crooner, and they're all wearing dinner jackets and dickie bow ties. And there's Donegan, you know, tieless, playing an acoustic guitar. This is all - this is almost - he looks like a roustabout.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRAGG: This is all brand-new stuff. And now in late-, you know - mid-'50s Britain, this is something...

GROSS: Right.

BRAGG: ...Amazing. It's never been seen before.

GROSS: Yeah.

BRAGG: And I think that's why young people, when they heard him - and it was very young people. Van Morrison was 12 years old when he heard Lonnie Donegan singing "Rock Island Line." And he was familiar with that song because his father collected blues records. He knew the Lead Belly version. But he had absolutely no idea how he, a 12-year-old boy from Belfast, would sing an old blues song because he believed that in order to sing those songs properly, you had to be from that community. But he heard Donegan and suddenly realized that he could sing that song, too.

GROSS: See, but this is so great. So Lonnie Donegan helped to import American music to England. And then, as you put it, skiffle becomes boot camp for the British Invasion. And the British Invasion comes to America, exporting the, you know - so we get the music that influences, you know, generations of performers. So the American music comes to England, and then the British Invasion comes to America. And this is, like, circle.

BRAGG: What goes around comes around.

GROSS: Yes (laughter).

BRAGG: You know, Lonnie Donegan...

GROSS: I mean, the Beatles...

BRAGG: The whole - you know, the whole argument about musical, you know, appropriation - there's a song that Donegan has a hit with in 1956 called "Stubble." Now, he learns that off a Lead Belly record. Lead Belly learned it off a recording that John Lomax did of sharecroppers working in the American South - African-American sharecroppers working in the American South. Lomax said that was the most common song that he heard in the fields. Now, a hundred years before that in the 1850s, that song was being sung in bawdy houses in New York. And a hundred years before that, it was being sold as a broadside ballad sheet lyrics on the streets of London. But the actual event that the song originally talks about happened in Ireland in the 1750s.

So my point is, Lonnie Donegan's in the charts in the U.K. in 1956 with this. Who does this song belong to? Who has the right to say this is our song? My sense is that everybody who sung it has a right to sing, and everybody who sang it tended to add something to it. So by the time it got to Donegan, it didn't have any point of reference to the actual race that took place in The Curragh of Kildare in the 1750s. But Donegan's mother was Irish, so maybe he had as much claim to it as everybody else.

GROSS: Well, we should take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Bragg. He's going to play some more music for us after we take a break. And his latest album is an album of songs about trains. It's called, "Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad." It's a series of duets with Joe Henry. He also has a new book which is about skiffle music, and that's the kind of American roots music as translated by British performers - English performers in the mid-'50s. And this is the music that helped give birth to the Beatles and Van Morrison and Pete Townshend. And so the book is called "Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World" We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAD BELLY'S "RED RIVER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Billy Bragg. And his latest album is a series of duets with Joe Henry of songs about trains called "Shine A Light." And his new book is called "Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World."

So even though you were too young for skiffle to have directly influenced your music when you were coming of age, the latest album that you have, "Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad," feature you - features you and Joe Henry doing songs about trains. And several of the songs on here are actually skiffle songs - "Rock Island Line," the "Midnight Special." I mean when I say skiffle songs, I mean in England...

BRAGG: Yeah, Lead Belly songs that...

GROSS: ...They became known as skiffle songs.

BRAGG: Yeah, exactly, yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. So - but I want you to...

BRAGG: That's the secret.

GROSS: Yeah. I want you to do a song from the album, if you would, for us that's probably not related to skiffle and England. But I love this song, and I love the way you do it on the album. It's the Jimmie Rodgers song, "Waiting For A Train." So tell us what this song means to you. And then if you would, play some of it for us.

BRAGG: Well, I love Jimmy Rodgers. I mean I think he's the first real - what we would imagine as a pop star in American culture. And of course, you know, he's not without his influences. "Waiting For A Train" has its roots in a British music hall - which is like vaudeville - song called "Standing On A Platform, Smoking A Cheap Cigar." So it's - again, it's one of those songs that, you know, who does this belong to? Where does it come from? It doesn't really matter in the end.

You know, Jimmy Rodgers was stealing influences from all over the place. If you listen to his "Blue Yodel" songs, they're fully of blues lines. So in the end, I think it's just great music. And I love this one because it's just - it's so sad - the story of the brakeman throwing the hobo off the train. And the question I always wonder in my head is, who is Jimmie in this song - because he was a brakeman. That was his job. He was on the railroad between San Antonio and Los Angeles. And as a brakeman, it was his job to slow the train down, make sure it was - all the carriages were coupled together but also to throw the hobos off the train.

GROSS: Would you play some of it for us?

BRAGG: Yeah, sure.

(Singing) All around the water tank, waiting for a train, a thousand miles away from home, sleeping in the rain. I walked up to a brakeman to give him a line of talk. He said he if you've got money, I'll see that you don't walk. I haven't got a nickel, not a penny can I show. Get off. Get off, you railroad bum. And he slammed that boxcar door. (Yodeling).

GROSS: Thank you (laughter). Is that the only time you've ever had to yodel in (laughter) your career?

BRAGG: Yeah. It's really strange. We recorded that - we got off the train one time in San Antonio because we wanted to get into the beautiful Sunset Limited railway station there that Amtrak don't own anymore. And the train gets in at midnight. So we got off. And we were late. We got in at 2 a.m. actually. And we were staying in the Gunter Hotel where Robert Johnson did his first recordings in, in Room 414. And we were hugely aware of this. We get to the hotel. It's the middle of the night. They throw the keys to us. They've put me in room 414, unbelievably...

GROSS: Wow.

BRAGG: ...Where there's - yeah. So next morning, I go - before I go to bed, I look under the bed and in the cupboard to see if the devil is there...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRAGG: ...To offer him my soul in exchange for learning to play the guitar. Although, anyone who's stayed in a hotel room in America will actually know the devil's actually in the minibar.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRAGG: But I didn't look in there. But the next morning, I said to Joe, we've got to record something. And we weren't about to record a Robert Johnson song. That would be sacrilege I think to do that. So instead, the next song up was "Waiting For A Train" - Jimmie Rodgers. So we recorded that there and found out, subsequently that Jimmie Rodgers also lived in the Gunter hotel when he was doing his radio show from San Antonio. So we kind of went looking for the ghost of Robert Johnson, but we connected with another spirit from back in the day.

GROSS: Oh, that is great. Well, so far we've heard you perform songs written by others, but you write great songs. And I want to talk with you about your own songs. Before you started writing songs, you wrote poems, right?

BRAGG: That's very true. I was at school writing poems - but everybody at school writes poems, don't they? That's one of the things they make you do for homework. And I just carried on doing it. I don't know what all the other kids in the class - why they didn't carry on doing it. But I just carried on doing it. And it turned out to be something I was pretty good at.

GROSS: So how did writing poems turn into songs?

BRAGG: Well, I realized you ain't going to make a living reading poems out. And if I was going to escape working in the car factory - the town I grew up in, it was dominated by a car factory - Fords at Dagenham. And everybody's dad worked there or worked for one of the ancillary companies like my dad did. So I didn't really want to work there. I went - we went there with the school a couple of times, and it just looked like Hades to me - the main body plant.

So when I told them I didn't want to do that, they literally - the career officer literally said to me, well, you have three choices, Bragg - the army, the navy or the air force - and gave me the forms. And that was it. So I thought, you know, I'm going to have to come up with something to get out this. So I wasn't any good at boxing, couldn't play football. So I thought I might try my hand at writing songs. So the kid next door taught me how to play guitar. And everything since then has been a blur till we just started talking a few minutes ago.

GROSS: (Laughter) So one of the first songs that you recorded is called "A New England" - one of your own songs.

BRAGG: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you do some of that song for us?

BRAGG: Sure. I can play you a bit of that, yeah, no problems.

GROSS: You want to introduce it for us?

BRAGG: I will, yeah. This is a song called "A New England." The first two lines of it I actually stole from a Simon and Garfunkel song. But there's an old saying we have in folk music, which is, a talent borrows; a genius steals.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRAGG: OK, here we go then.

(Singing) I was 21 years when I wrote this song. I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long. People ask me, when will I grow up to be a man? But all the girls I loved at school are already pushing prams. I loved you then as love you still. Though I put you on a pedestal, they put you on the pill. I don't feel bad about letting you go. I just feel sad about letting you know. I don't want to change the world. I'm not looking for a new England. I'm just looking for another girl. I don't want to change the world. I'm not looking for a new England. I'm just looking for another girl.

GROSS: So my impression is you must have been a great songwriter already when you were young, maybe not such a great boyfriend (laughter).

BRAGG: No, I was a pathetic boyfriend. But that was how I got to write all the songs. I think if I had have been a good boyfriend, I wouldn't of wrote all those songs because it was my way of coming to terms with that.

GROSS: My guest is songwriter and singer Billy Bragg. His new book about skiffle is called "Roots, Radicals And Rockers." His latest album, a collaboration with Joe Henry, is called "Shine A Light." We'll talk and he'll play more songs for us after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAILROAD BILL")

BILLY BRAGG AND JOE HENRY: (Singing) Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill - he never worked, and he never will. I want to ride, Railroad Bill. I want to ride, old Railroad Bill.

BRAGG: (Singing) Railroad Bill was a mighty mean man. He shot the lantern out the brakeman's hand. I want to ride, Railroad Bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "NOW I'VE GOT A WITNESS - LIKE UNCLE PHIL AND UNCLE GENE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with British songwriter and singer Billy Bragg, who brought his guitar and is playing some songs for us. He has a new book about skiffle, the British music movement of the '50s that adapted American blues and folk music and influenced British rockers like the Beatles, Pete Townshend and Van Morrison. Bragg's latest album, which also features Joe Henry, is a collection of songs about trains called "Shine A Light."

So you had said that when you were trying to figure out how can you get out of the town where you grew up in, how can you get out of working in a factory, which is what everybody did when - where you lived and you were told army, navy or air force - that was basically your choices - you actually did join the army at some point. What happened?

BRAGG: I did. I did.

GROSS: What happened? - because I know it's not what you wanted to do.

BRAGG: No, no. Well, basically what happened was I kind of escaped from that town in a little punk band. Me and my mates, we went off and went to the studio out in the countryside and kind of never came home again, much to my mom's dismay. And we kind of lived there, like, more or less squatting for a couple of years.

But when that band broke up - these were kids I went to school with, you know, this is the guy who taught me how to play guitar - it seemed like I was going to have to go back to my mom's and just sort of be that bloke who used to be in a band. So I was looking for something that would kind of press the eject button on my previous persona, if you like.

And I kind of remembered that - what a career officer said to me and thought about joining the army. At the time, the Cold War was starting to heat up and it looked like stuff was going to happen. And it seemed to be - it made sense at the time. But when you've driven one tank, Terry, you've driven them all, quite frankly.

So I kind of bought myself out after basic training because one of the things I think I was trying...

GROSS: You literally did that though, right?

BRAGG: Yeah.

GROSS: You literally bought - I didn't know you could do that in England.

BRAGG: In a volunteer army you can, yeah.

GROSS: So just to explain, you actually paid to get out of the army.

BRAGG: Yeah, yeah, after basic training for 175 pounds, they let me out. And one of the reasons I did it, I think, looking back was that I was trying to get rid of this stupid idea that I could ever be a singer-songwriter. And this seemed to be the best way to just smother it, kill it, forget it. And of course, I get to this place, this army place, and I just start coming up with these great ideas for songs. And I suddenly realize I'm - damn.

I'm going to have to extricate myself and do this one more time. And I think it was that experience of basic training - 'cause I decided I was pretty good at it. When I said I was leaving, they were very disappointed because I was actually pretty good at it, the whole thing. And it kind of gave me a sense that I could do anything. In the end, it ended up being like a sabbatical because, you know, I'll be standing in a pub somewhere in South London. And there'll be a larry audience. I'll think, well, you know, I've taken on the British army. I can deal with these Herberts. What have you got?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRAGG: You know, what have you got? So - and I think that was part of the being solo - the playing solo and the electric guitar thing. It was like, you know, damn it, I'm just going to have to do this. It was like, fix my bayonet and just charge and see what happens. It was definitely the last chance. It was my last chance. And it came off.

And I'm not sure it would have happened that way round if I had just stayed sitting at my mom's. I probably never would have got that sort of urge to go back and prove to myself that I could do this. I might not ever have gotten that. So I don't recommend it to anybody, but it certainly put me in a frame of mind to take control of my life and go in the direction I wanted to go.

GROSS: Well, and you had - I mean you kind of talked your way into parts of your - you banged on doors until they opened.

BRAGG: I did.

GROSS: Yeah, I mean you kind of pretended to be a TV repairman to get to see the producer you wanted to see (laughter).

BRAGG: Well, pretend is a loaded word there, Terry, I think. Basically what happened was I was working with a guy who did video presentations for corporations at a time when people didn't have video. So we would carry a video machine around with us to do these presentations. I was just helping him out. And what I would do was while he was talking, I would hook the video machine up to the TV because people couldn't do it back in those days. It was like '81, '82.

So I'm in a record company trying to get to see a guy to give him my tape. And they're not letting me in. They're not letting me in. I'm sitting there, an hour's going by, nothing's happening. And a young lady stuck her head around the door and said, are you the guy who's come to tune in the video? And without thinking really much about it, I said, yep, that's me. So they let me in. They let me through the door, upstairs into the place.

I crawled under the telly. I tuned in their video like they asked me - wasn't a lie. I did it. And then I asked around for the guy I was looking for. They said, yeah, that's him over there. And I went and gave him my tape. And he ended up being my manager and getting me a record deal.

GROSS: It's kind of amazing that it worked out so well.

BRAGG: (Laughter) Yeah, it's kind of - it was just one of those things.

GROSS: Oh, and another amazing thing you did that worked out really well for you that I think could never happen now - John Peel, the great and, you know, famous DJ...

BRAGG: Yeah, blessed be his name.

GROSS: ...Who played a lot of records that nobody else would play and broke a lot of new music that way - you were listening to him. And he said he was hungry and wanted biryani, and you brought him some.

BRAGG: Well, it was the day I'd left a copy of my album at the BBC, one for him and one for a few other people. And I was playing football in Hyde Park with some mates. And we were having a beer listening to the program before Peel on Radio 1. And Peel came in and said to the DJ, Kid Jensen, you know, what his show was going to be like.

And then he happened to say, I would do anything for a mushroom biryani, which is a kind of vegetable curry that you can find very easily in England. So I thought, all right. So I got out of my football gear. I walked about a mile to Broadcasting House, picked up a biryani on the way and turned up and said, mushroom biryani for John Peel. And I suppose they thought he'd ordered it because they phoned him and he came down to take it off me himself.

GROSS: They thought you were from the restaurant?

BRAGG: I guess they did, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

BRAGG: The concierge thought that. So Peel came down, and I said to him, hi, my name is Billy Bragg. I just left a record. If you'd play - you know, if you'd listen to it, I'd really appreciate it. He said, all right, mate, I will. And I went home, and I tuned in. And he played it that night, which is - and then kind of sort of took me under his wing and gave me sessions on his radio show.

And one thing I must tell you about John Peel - he once invited me to have dinner with him and Lonnie Donegan, the king of skiffle, in the late '90s. And I went along, and it was great. And we got on like a house on fire, me and Lonnie. But John didn't really say anything at all much in the conversation. My plugger was there. My record plugger was also there. And on the way home, I said to my plugger, what was the problem with Peel? Has he got the ump with me or something? He said, oh, Bill, do you not know what just happened? I said, no, what? What? He said, look; the reason you were there is because John Peel, the great John Peel who discovered Led Zeppelin, the Faces, the Smiths, all that - the great John Peel is so in awe of Lonnie Donegan that he needed you to be there to talk to Lonnie so he could listen.

And that's one of the things that made me realize that something happened in 1956 that we no longer really appreciate, something really important happened to people like Peel. And it would be worth going back there and trying to understand what it was that made someone as great as John Peel be turned to jelly by the man who sang "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)"

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Billy Bragg. He has a new book about skiffle music, the roots music, the American roots music that was imported to England and popularized there in the 1950s that kind of was the prequel to the British Invasion bands. And so the new book is called "Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World." We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAD BELLY SONG, "C.C. RIDER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Billy Bragg. His latest album is actually an album of train songs called "Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad." And it features duets with him and Joe Henry. He also has a new book that's called "Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World."

Your music - some of your music is really very political. And I think you've tried to use some of your music in kind of socially active ways, politically active ways. So one of the songs that you wrote and performed is called "There Is Power In A Union," and you wrote this I think for a 1984 coal miners strike in England.

BRAGG: Yeah.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the song and the context that you wrote it in?

BRAGG: Sure. Well, one of the other things I discovered when I come to United States of America was Joe Hill. I've never heard of Joe Hill. I'd heard of Woody Guthrie because I was a Dylan fan. So at least, you know, I had a vague idea who Woody was. Joe Hill - never heard of him. So when I started being able to - in American record stores - being able to buy his albums of his songs - because he didn't really make records because he was executed in 1915. But his songs - I thought, this is a really powerful tradition.

And in 1984, the same year that I first came to America, there was a massive struggle in my own country when the National Union of Mineworkers were on strike for a year. And I was going and doing gigs to support them, and I needed to reflect that in my music. So I had this great Ry Cooder record where he sings a song called "Rally Round The Flag," which is a song from the American Civil War, from the North. And the chorus is, the Union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah. Down with the traitor; up with the star.

And I thought that there's my star. You know, there's power in a union. So I kind of stole the title from Joe Hill. He has a song called "There's Power In A Union." I borrowed the tune from "Rally Round The Flag," the American Civil War song. But I was ever so pleased to find out later that actually the tune for "Rally Round The Flag" was stolen from an English hymn.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRAGG: So what goes around comes around I think in folk music.

GROSS: Yeah.

BRAGG: Let me play a little bit of it for you.

GROSS: Would you? Thank you.

BRAGG: Of course.

(Singing) There's in power in the factory, power in the land, power in the hand of the worker. But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand. There is power in a union - the union forever defending our rights. Down with the blackleg. All workers unite. With our brothers and our sisters, together we will stand. There is power in a union.

GROSS: That's Billy Bragg. Thank you for doing that song. It's really rousing. You actually wrote some Woody Guthrie songs, which is to say that Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora found a lot of his lyrics that had never been set to music and then asked you to take some of those lyrics and write songs for them, set them to music. Why did she choose you?

BRAGG: Well, I don't know actually (laughter).

GROSS: You never asked.

BRAGG: I suppose - well, yeah. I don't like to ask, really. I think she asked some of the usual suspects you'd imagine. I mean that was my first impulse when she asked me - was, like, surely this is Bob Dylan's job, not mine, Nora. Come on. But I think in some ways - when I think looking back about it, I think it needed to be someone who hadn't grown up with Woody. I think it helped that I was, you know, an ocean away from Woody.

And I could see Woody against the backdrop of 20th century American culture rather than him be a, you know, a giant in the room with me because Nora was very, very generous in that sense when she was talking about the material. She said, you know, don't worry about the legend of Woody Guthrie. I'll deal with those people when they come for you. I'll deal with those people. You just listen to the voice of the man in the archive. And the archive, as you say, was full of complete lyrics to songs that he wrote during his lifetime. But like me, Woody Guthrie can't write musical notation. So if I write a song, what you actually get physically is a piece of paper with words on it. And the words have meter to them and rhyme to them, but there's no sense of how the tune works on them because I can't write down the quavers and crotchets.

So Woody wrote all these songs. He kept the tunes in his head. And when he was incapacitated by the Huntington's disease in the early '50s and then died in 1967, obviously all these tunes were lost forever. And they languished in, you know - we're talking about 90 percent of the songs the man wrote in his lifetime, some 3,000 complete songs...

GROSS: Wow.

BRAGG: ...Languished in the - in boxes in the Guthrie home. And Nora had the genius idea of inviting people in to come and write some new music to them, to sort of, if you like, what I felt what we did - myself and Wilco, the band Wilco - we kind of put new frames on these old songs so that we could hang them on the wall and people could admire them.

And they're such great songs. They really, you know - they really do stand up. Some of the songs that I wrote music for, I've played them in four or five different ways - different tunes, different tempos. And they still stand up just the same. They're just brilliant lyrics.

GROSS: Would you do one of those songs that you wrote the melody for?

BRAGG: Of course. Maybe I should do "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key." I identified with this song particularly strongly because as it says in the chorus, there ain't nobody who can sing like me.

(Singing) I lived in a place called Okfuskee, and I had a little girl in a holler tree. I said, little girl, it's plain to see there ain't nobody who can sing like me, ain't nobody who can sing like me. Way over yonder in the minor key, way over yonder in the minor key, there ain't nobody who can sing like me.

GROSS: So did working with Woody Guthrie lyrics and setting them to music bring out anything in your songwriting that was different from writing music for your own lyrics?

BRAGG: It was more about the approach that Woody had. I think Woody - he said as much in his writings that he never wanted to write a song that made people feel down. When he wrote his political songs, it was always about lifting people up and giving them hope and making them feel that a better life was possible. He said he hated songs that make people that, you know, they're born to lose.

He hated those songs. In fact, when he wrote a song called "Bound To Lose," people were outraged by it. They couldn't believe it. But then you found out it was "All You Fascists Bound To Lose." And they understood that then but - so what I learned from that, it's kind of something that I've been nothing - I've been feeling for a while but I hadn't been able to articulate. And that is that the biggest enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism or conservatism, it's actually cynicism. And not the cynicism of, you know, right-wing newspapers or news channels - the cynicism that is our greatest enemy is our own cynicism, our own sense that nothing will ever change, that nobody cares about this stuff, that all politicians are the same. You know, that's what those right-wing outlets want you to believe. They want you to believe nobody else cares. That's why they have a kind of sort of low-level war on empathy.

You know, if anyone talks about anything compassionate, they dismiss it as political correctness or virtue signaling or whatever. You know, they want us to feel cynical about the world and that nothing can be done. So if we're going to make a difference, we have to be able to overcome that. We have to be able to identify our cynicism. We all feel it. Of course we all feel it. And we have to be able to curb it and put it to one side and go out every day and think the glass is half full.

That's not a political idea on which to base an ideology. But if you're going to be a person of the left, a progressive person, you have to believe fundamentally in the benefits of everybody in the world getting a bit of a say. So you have to come at it in that way, I think, that the glass is half full and we'll move on from there.

GROSS: You actually have a song that ends your album "Tooth & Nail" that basically says that.

BRAGG: Yeah, you do have to make it explicit sometimes. "Tomorrow's Going To Be A Better Day."

GROSS: Yeah.

BRAGG: I think, I mean one of the things that really focuses that is the amount of cynicism there is on the Internet. You know, I think, unfortunately - it's a wonderful thing, the Internet. And because it allows - you know, back in the old days, if you were angry about - well, I said the old days - when I was 19. If you were angry about the world and you come from a background like mine, there was really only one outlet for you. That was to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs. That was the only platform that was available to a working-class kid.

Now if you feel angry about the world, there's plenty of ways you can express that. But unfortunately, you also have to face down the worst kind of anger out there, particularly, you know, the way that women are treated online. You know, you can tell by reading responses that the people who are abusing and attacking young, intelligent women are the exact opposite of young, intelligent and women, you know? You can see that by the way they talk. And that's something that we all have to work with.

So, you know, I have a song called "I Keep Faith" that I play that I introduce with that, you know, that message about fighting our own cynicism. And people come to me afterwards and say that particular song, that moved them to tears. And that's good for me because that's the kind of empathy I'm talking about that we - it's the currency of all of us who want to make music, you know, and having faith in one another that we can hang together and we can go forward, particularly the times we live in at the moment in your country and mine. That's a very valuable thing to have.

So that's the kind of message I want to put out. Maybe it's not so political as "There's Power In A Union." But I believe it cuts deeper in the times that we live in.

GROSS: Can you do a little bit of that song?

BRAGG: "I Keep Faith" - yeah, sure.

(Singing) If you want to make the weather, you have to take the blame. If sometimes dark clouds fill the sky and it starts to rain, folks complain. And though your head may tell you to run and hide, listen to your heart and you'll find me right by your side because I keep faith. I keep faith. I keep faith. I keep faith in you. Yes, I do. I keep faith in you.

GROSS: Well, thank you. That's really great.

BRAGG: Thank you.

GROSS: When did you write that?

BRAGG: I wrote that around 10 years ago. It was something that I kind of was looking for a song that bound the audience together. And you know, a lot of us now at my age - I'm going to be 60 this year. We've been through a lot. We've, you know, we've had some victories. We've had a lot of knock backs. But we stuck together. And we, you know - and I'm still doing it.

I'm still coming and playing these songs. Why am I still coming and playing? Well, it's because of my faith in the ability of the audience to change the world because I think doing this matters and makes a difference. And you know, that's something that, you know, sometimes you have to make explicit. I feel that, anyway, you know?

And I think we've all been around the block enough times for me to be able to say that to my audience, that we hang together. So when it does touch them, when it does move them, I'm very, very happy. I mean I could set it up another way and just say, this is about me and my partner. You know, it could just be a love song. But I think the greatest of - my favorite Billy Bragg songs anyway are the ones where politics and personal relationships overlap. And that one's probably the prime example.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Billy Bragg. And he has a new book called "Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World." And it's about skiffle music, the British music of the 1950s that was influenced and inspired by American blues and folk and early country music and went on to influence, you know, the Beatles and Pete Townshend and Van Morrison. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "WIGWAM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Billy Bragg, who's brought his guitar with him and is performing some songs for us. He has a new book called "Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World." And his latest album is called "Shine A Light." It's a series of duets with Joe Henry featuring songs about trains, including some Lead Belly songs, a Jimmie Rodgers song and other classic songs about trains.

So I would love for you to do one more song before we have to end. And I thought it would be good for you to do a song from your most recent album of original songs. And that's from your 2013 album "Tooth & Nail." How about the song "Do Unto Others," which is an interesting song because that's, like, a Bible quote and...

BRAGG: Yeah.

GROSS: ...To my knowledge, you are not a religious person.

BRAGG: Not particularly, no. No, I'm not. But when you're Billy Bragg, you have to deal with people stereotyping you as a kind of lefty. And they think they know what you're going to say every time. And they think they know what your politics are. So when you get the opportunity to do something that confounds that, I always take it. So when I was asked at the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible - I was approached by a group called I think it was 66 songs - 66 something.

Anyway, it was to make some sort of performance work or performance art based on one of the books of the Bible. And I thought, yeah, that's the sort of thing no one would expect Bragg to do. I'm going to do that. So I spoke to the guy, and we talked about it. And I said, look, tell you what, send me one of those books from the New Testament where Jesus Christ has been a socialist, and I'll see what I can do for you.

So they sent me the Book of Luke, which has do unto others in it. And that's what I wrote the song - I based the song on that and performed it as part of the celebrations. And I'm quite happy to play it for you now.

GROSS: Thank you.

BRAGG: (Singing) In the Bible, we are told God gave Moses in the days of old Ten great Commandments for his people to hold true. But the greatest commandment of all is in the Book of Luke, as I recall, do unto others as you would have them do to you. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

GROSS: A nice note to end on.

BRAGG: Yes, I think it's B-flat.

GROSS: (Laughter) Billy Bragg, it's just been great talking with you. Thank you for...

BRAGG: (Laughter) Oh, it's been lovely talking with you as well, Terry.

GROSS: Thank you for playing and singing for us. That was wonderful.

BRAGG: I've enjoyed myself immensely. Thanks for having me on.

GROSS: It's been my pleasure.

Billy Bragg is the author of the new book "Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World." His latest album with Joe Henry is called "Shine A Light."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be John le Carre. He's written a new novel about the protege of le Carre's most famous spy, George Smiley. Smiley was also in le Carre's novels "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." John le Carre was a spy before writing espionage novels. He says he learned about deception from his father, who was a pathological liar. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineers today are Audrey Bentham and Adam Stanaschefski. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.