Here’s a clip of Billy Bragg performing one of my favourite songs by anyone; “Tank Park Salute” taken from his 1991 album Don’t Try This at Home.
The song is one of the most heartfelt songs about death ever written. While the song is an eloquent expression of what it is to experience loss, it’s also got a child-like quality in the performance to offset any accusations of sermonizing. In this song alone, Bragg is shown to be one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation.
This is a song about a son coming to terms with the loss of his dad, a figure that had stood for stalwartness and permanence, now having passed. The loss leaves his son to come to terms with mortality – his father’s, and ultimately his own as well. There are no answers here, just raw emotion; “at the top of the stairs is darkness”.
Billy Bragg is most often associated with a customized punk-folk sound, and with material with an anti-establishment, politicized edge sung in a class-conscious Essex accent. It’s true that Bragg’s left-of-centre, pro-union stance is a big part of his catalogue from his Thatcher-era debut onward. But, even from the beginning, he was interested in classic pop songwriting, not impersonal political sloganeering. Bragg has always been a writer of songs about the human condition. Politics are merely a facet of his interest in this greater theme.
Some of his best tunes are the ones that are straight-up love songs. See his “Milkman of Human Kindness” from his 1983 EP Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy. A down-to-earth, no-bones-about-it love song of this kind is rare in its delivery, and in its melodic appeal. This song alone shows that Bragg is not a two-dimensional polemical loudspeaker, riding a trend of anti-government songwriting. The themes found in his work as a whole are universal, timeless, and having to do with flesh and blood human experience. This is the Holy Grail of any songwriter – to make a connection with that, and have that connection endure.
Bragg’s songwriting pedigree was well established when Nora Guthrie contacted Bragg about putting music to the lyrics penned by her father who was the original left-leaning politicized songwriter – Woody Guthrie. She had found pages of lyrics written by her dad, and Billy Bragg added music to Woody Gutherie’s lyrics, with the help of alt-country band Wilco who signed on to back him and to contribute their own musical efforts to the songs. The resulting albums – Mermaid Avenue, and Mermaid Avenue Volume 2 – were released to acclaim in 1998 and 2000 respectively.
Billy Bragg’s latest album, Mr. Love & Justice is out now.
For more music, check out the Billy Bragg MySpace page.
The man is touring, folks. For record releases and tour dates, subscribe to the RSS feed found on the Billy Bragg official website, too.