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.