Listen to this track by the celebrated Bard of Barking and one-time One-Man Clash, Billy Bragg. It’s “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”, a story of a young marriage, loneliness, violence and tragedy; perfect subject matter for a folk song, then. The song is taken from Billy’s 1986 album Talking to the Taxman About Poetry.
Where Bragg is well-known for his politically-oriented material, particularly around this time at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s era as British Prime Minister, this song proves that what Billy Bragg does best is to use songwriting as a means of telling stories. This is certainly one of his best, a song about a downtrodden woman, having married young, and finding herself alone after her ex-husband attempts to kill her, before abandoning her.
But, Bragg hasn’t set up a cardboard cut-out figure so that he can talk about abused and abandoned women; he lets the story of the woman in this song do that for him.This is a woman worn down by her miserable situation. But, she’s also a person reaching out to the hope of a new life, mostly through the songs on the radio, and through the contents of a Four Tops cassette. We identify with her, which leads me into what’s really at the heart of this song.
One of the ways that folk music and social issues interrelate is through pathos. Stories at the center of folks songs are about poverty, oppression, infidelity, and very often, death. But, pathos and an invitation to empathy is just as common. In this way, the tragedy and injustice found in the stories aren’t just rendered as social problems. They have human faces beyond the subject of the tragedies depicted. The whole point is for the singers, and the listeners, to see their own humanity reflected in the stories and to see the world, and those around them, as connecting to that humanity.
This song is a short story or even a novel, inside of a three-minutes-and-change song about a woman who made young, rash decisions, and who only finds joy in the strains of pop music she plays while living in a lonely mobile home. Further to that, we’ve all met those “blokes, the sort that only laughs at his own jokes”. These guys are usually attached to a woman who deserves better, but she doesn’t know it (or won’t admit it to herself). The characters in this song are fully realized, with us as listeners filling in the gaps of the story, just because we have met people like this.
In the days before recorded sound, this kind of identification is what made people sing folk songs in the first place, and then (very importantly) pass those songs on. In this way, the art of folk songs is all about binding the listeners and the singers together through the people being sung about. Billy Bragg took this folk approach, attached it to a modern pop/rock sound, and created one of my favourite of his songs.
Bragg takes this idea of pathos and humanity and knocks it out of the park. The woman’s situation held against her love of joyous soul music which stands as the only thing she feels she can count on is almost too much contrast to bear.
That’s good songwriting.
For more information and more music, be sure to visit BillyBragg.co.uk.
4 thoughts on “Billy Bragg Sings “Levi Stubbs’ Tears””
It is a superb song (though I think “The Home Front” from the same album is better). But what I love about this song out of all proportion is the music, which is completely stripped down to a very simple and utterly compelling electric guitar riff. And in the middle of it it explodes with bright percussion and then reverts back to the stripped down riff and then ends with a little bit of trumpet and drums added for good measure.
And I think that’s what I love about Billy Bragg. He does the folk tradition storytelling by song thing excellently but his skill at creating melodies with a real hook is a lot cannier than people give him credit. “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” is one of those songs that forever is in my head and I think that’s down to his musicianship as well.
I think you’re hitting on something important – that Bragg is not just a storyteller, he’s a musician. And you’re right; I don’t think that the songs could be as effective if they also weren’t musically interesting. As much as Bragg is pulling from the Clash as much as he is from traditional folk traditions. And that comes out in the music, and is vital to the narrative. You can’t see the seams. That’s good songwriting, too.
Thanks for comments!
Thank God you’re listening to music, Rob. Another great post and another brilliant memory brought forward. You’ve put your finger on this song and what it accomplishes through the folk music medium. Brings to mind the Richard Thompson disc, 1000 Years of Popular Music, which takes a whole range of popular music and puts them in a folk context — passing them on, as many of them had been done for hundreds of years.
I’ve heard a lot about that Thompson set, which really backs up that silvery thread of folk narrative in pop music. I must give that a listen soon!