Overrated: Billy Bragg

The “folk-singing” darling of the Corbynistas is a musical and political fake

Overrated
(Illustration by Michael Daley)

English folk music is fake music. The Irish and the Scots have traditions of folk music, but the English do not. They urbanised early, in the mid-19th century, and they left their rural fiddly-diddly on the farm. Since then, the music of English folk has been urban, orchestrated and comic: Dan Leno, Ivor Novello, Ray Davies, Lily Allen. English “folk music” is a racket in more ways than one. It is about as authentic as the Druid cult, cooked up in a Soho pub by Georgian antiquarians, and about as pleasurable as a hard day’s Morris dance.

Billy Bragg is perhaps England’s most popular faux-folk perpetrator. He is proudly inept on the guitar, and cultivates the vocal stylings of a sea lion in labour. These qualities alone identify him as a musical fake.

Real folk musicians are skilled manual workers who can pitch a tune, play a fleet melody and improvise on a theme. They absorb the tradition in which they are raised. Bragg’s folk epiphany came when he heard Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” on the radio. His musical chops are a pastiche of first-wave punk, which was sold as the sound of a deskilled working class but packaged by middle-class Situationists.

Just as John Lydon went from frightening the horses with the Sex Pistols to advertising butter and partaking in I’m a Celebrity, so Bragg has drifted from irritating Maoist busker to national treasure as the George Orwell of pop.

The music business is always the entertainment business. Bragg, a professional anti-capitalist, has always played the game. In his early days, he heard John Peel tell his listeners that he was hungry, so rushed to Broadcasting House with a mushroom biryani. Peel ate it, and played Bragg’s record.

This culinary payola was not the last time Bragg collaborated with a state broadcaster. In 1986, he played in East Germany. He permitted Amiga, the Party-run record company, to release a live album whose sleeve note propagandised Bragg as a “folk hero of British working-class youth”. In 2006, Bragg admitted that the reality of the GDR had been “pretty salutary”, but not enough: “It didn’t stop me being a socialist.”

Nothing can. Bragg’s response to the end of the Cold War was to record “The Internationale” using the traditional Soviet accompaniment, brass band and choir, but with updated lyrics. “So comrades come rally, for this is the time and place,” he sang, like King Canute’s jester. “Don’t cling so hard to your possessions.”

By 1990, Bragg was possessed of a healthy royalty stream, much of it stemming from the kind of left-wing agitprop that was not suitable for miners in the Eighties but went down well with the students and Guardian readers. He remains a bourgeois deviationist.

It is an iron law of history that only middle-class people fall for the working-class blokery of the “Billy Bragg” persona. Bragg is an actor, his role that of Gramsci’s organic intellectual. He stops more glottals when he is on stage than on Radio 4. He offers his studiously untutored voice, his acoustic guitar, and his folk memories of trade unionism and the Depression as proofs of authenticity, like Tony Benn’s routine with the pipe and the builder’s tea.

But he is selling a fantasy. The English working class loves electric music from America. The rest is kitsch for sentimental middle-class socialists, Orwell’s beardy-weirdy, sandal-wearing vegetarians — people like Bragg’s friend Jeremy Corbyn.

These days, Bragg preserves his brand and calls himself a “progressive”. His hometown, Dagenham, Essex, has named a street after him, Bragg Close. But his politics remain stuck in the dead end of the hard Left. Last summer, three of Britain’s Jewish newspapers, in an unprecedented protest, ran identical front-page editorials calling Corbyn an “existential threat” to Jewish life in Britain. Bragg sided with Corbyn.

“Austria is forcing Jews to register, the Alt-Right are chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’, but Labour pose an ‘existential threat’ to British Jews?” Bragg tweeted. “How are we supposed to conduct a reasoned debate about anti-Semitism in such a febrile atmosphere?”

The reference to Austria was fake news, circulated after a single regional official had suggested that Jews and Muslims should register in order to purchase kosher or halal meat. This, and the invocation of the American alt-right, was classic what-aboutery from the school of Stalin and the Socalist Workers Party. So was Bragg’s sinister suggestion that the Jews are the working man’s misfortune.

British Jews, Bragg continued, have “work to do” if they wanted to rebuild trust with Labour. By complaining about record levels of anti-Jewish violence, vandalism and incitement, they were “pouring petrol on the fire”. They should shut up and trust the dear leader.

When it comes to the party line, Bragg remains, as he once said of an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, a “dedicated swallower of fascism”.