This song comes from the 1998 album, Mermaid Avenue. The lyrics to all the songs on this
album were written by Woody Guthrie sometime before his death in 1967 and put to music
by Billy Bragg and Wilco about 30 years later. The words to this song paint a picture of
sleeping and dreaming beneath the beautiful California stars.
Billy Bragg & Wilco – Walt Whitman’s Niece (Lyrics)
Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key – Billy Bragg & Wilco
Stephen William Bragg
Finding inspiration in the righteous anger of punk rock and the socially conscious folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg was the leading figure of the anti-folk movement of the ’80s. For most of the decade, Bragg bashed out songs alone on his electric guitar, singing about politics and love. While his lyrics were bitingly intelligent and clever, they were also warm and humane, filled with detail and wit. Even though his lyrics were carefully considered, Bragg never neglected to write melodies for songs that were strong and memorable. Throughout the ’80s, he managed to chart consistently in Britain, yet he only gathered a cult following in America, which could be due to the fact that he sang about distinctly British subject matter, both politically and socially.
Bragg began performing in the late ’70s with the punk group Riff Raff, which lasted only a matter of months. He then joined the British Army, yet he quickly bought himself out of his sojourn with £175. After leaving the Army, he began working at a record store; while he was working, he was writing songs that were firmly in the folk and punk protest tradition. Bragg began a British tour, playing whenever he had the chance to perform. Frequently he would open for bands with only a moment’s notice; soon, he had built a sizable following, as evidenced by his first EP, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy (1983), hitting number 30 on the U.K. independent charts. Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984), his first full-length album, climbed to number 16 in the charts.
During 1984, Bragg became a minor celebrity in Britain, as he appeared at leftist political rallies, strikes, and benefits across the country; he also helped form the “Red Wedge,” a socialist musicians’ collective that also featured Paul Weller. In 1985, Kirsty MacColl took one of his songs, “New England,” to number seven on the British singles chart. Featuring some subtle instrumental additions of piano and horns, 1986’s Talking with the Taxman About Poetry reached the U.K. Top Ten.
Bragg’s version of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” taken from the Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father tribute album, became his only number one single in 1988 — as the double A-side with Wet Wet Wet’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.” That year, he also released the EP Help Save the Youth of America and the full-length Workers Playtime, which was produced by Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, R.E.M.). Boyd helped expand Bragg’s sound, as the singer recorded with a full band for the first time. The following year, Bragg restarted the Utility record label as a way of featuring non-commercial new artists. The Internationale, released in 1990, was a collection of left-wing anthems, including a handful of Bragg originals. On 1991’s Don’t Try This at Home, he again worked with a full band, recording his most pop-oriented and accessible set of songs; the album featured the hit single, “Sexuality.” Bragg took several years off after Don’t Try This at Home, choosing to concentrate on fatherhood. He returned in 1996 with William Bloke.
In 1998, he teamed with the American alternative country band Wilco to record Mermaid Avenue, a collection of performances based on unreleased songs originally written by Woody Guthrie. Reaching to the Converted, a collection of rarities, followed a year later, and in mid-2000 Bragg and Wilco reunited for a second Mermaid Avenue set. While touring in support of Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2, Bragg formed the Blokes in 1999 with Small Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan. Lu Edmonds (guitar), Ben Mandelson (lap steel guitar), Martyn Barker (drums), and Simon Edwards (bass) solidified the group while Bragg moved from London to rural Dorset in early 2001. One year later, the Blokes joined Bragg for England, Half English, his first solo effort since William Bloke.
In 2004, Bragg collaborated with Less Than Jake for “The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out,” a track included on the Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1 compilation. The two-CD Must I Paint You a Picture? The Essential Billy Bragg appeared in 2003 with initial copies featuring a third bonus CD of collectibles and rarities. The Yep Roc label released the box set Volume 1 in 2006. The set included seven CDs and two DVDs of previously unavailable live footage, and the label simultaneously reissued four titles from Bragg’s early back catalog in expanded editions. Billy Bragg spent the next year recording in London, Devon, and Lincolnshire, and 2008 saw the release of Mr. Love & Justice, his first solo effort in six years. Although the Blokes served as Bragg’s backing band on the album, a limited-edition package also included a second disc comprised of intimate solo recordings. The barebones Woody Guthrie-inspired Tooth & Nail arrived in early 2013 and the following year brought the DVD & CD set, Live at the Union Chapel, which included an encore performance of Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy in its entirety as a bonus feature. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
Billy Bragg Performs Surprise Set at the Royale For Ferguson: “Liberty and Justice for All!”
|Billy Bragg addresses a crowd of about 100 people on the Royale’s patio. See more photos here.|
Billy Bragg stood at the microphone toward the end of his set at the Royale, thoughtfully looking up into the night sky as he tried to put words to what’s happening in Ferguson.
“The true enemy is our own cynicism,” Bragg finally told the audience. “We have to fight to overcome that cynicism. We have to show the world that St. Louis is not a cynical place, a place where people give in to their worst impulses.”
Bragg, known worldwide for speaking out against human-rights violations and bigotry, performed an hourlong set at the Royale on just a few hours’ notice, deciding to stop in St. Louis as he made his way south to Arkansas on a photography tour of the old Rock Island Line railroad path for Aperture magazine. Several performances over the next week are planned, but Bragg and fellow guitarist Joe Purdy already have made a habit of impulsively playing where they’ve felt moved to do so, such as outside a school in Illinois where teachers were striking for better pay. St. Louis was just such an impulse stop.
“Yesterday, I tweeted from Rock Island [Illinois] about where I should go, and people from here and Britain reminded me that St. Louie wasn’t far,” Bragg said. “It’s not just people here that care [about Ferguson]. We saw a demonstration of a dozen people walk past our hotel in Rock Island.”
Bragg then said that he contacted his friend Karl Haglund, an artist who paints canvases of iconic guitars, about where he might perform. Upon advice from Magnolia Summer’s Chris Grabau, Haglund suggested the Royale and put Bragg into contact with owner Steven Smith. The performance was announced on Twitter and Facebook 30 minutes later, with Smith using the show as a way to rally up bins of toiletries, food, school supplies and first-aid kids from the 100 or so people attending — all donations that would be distributed in Ferguson through St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
On the Royale’s patio in front of an orange-red garage, Bragg and Purdy opened their acoustic set with “Rock Island Line,” an old American folk song that Lonnie Donegan famously covered and that initially inspired the journey. Bragg went solo next, delighting the crowd with his song “Sexuality.”
Bragg said that he and Purdy would be switching off to “stay fresh,” giving up the “stage.” Purdy, now solo, joked, “The problem with traveling with Billy Bragg is that you have to follow him.” He performed “Down to the Water” on “this old pawn-shop guitar.” “But I still love you,” he said to the instrument.
Bragg returned for a few train-based songs, saying, “I don’t think there was any invention as transformative in human existence as the railroad.” The duo performed “There Is Power in a Union,” which moved the toe-tapping audience to yip and clap, especially once Bragg finished the song and shouted “Solidarity forever!” with a fist pump.
Playing solo, Bragg reminded the crowd of his love and respect for folk hero Woody Guthrie, sharing that “Guthrie as a young man witnessed the aftermath of lynchings and wrote this song,” before beginning “Hangknot, Slipknot.” The lyrics, “Who makes the laws for that hangknot?” resonated through the rapt audience.
Bragg reminded the crowd again about seeing the Ferguson supporters through his hotel window. “These are difficult times,” he said as the Royale crowd spontaneously began chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” — a now-iconic phrase coined because of reports that Michael Brown had his hands in the air when Ferguson officer Darren Wilson shot him on August 9.
Moved by the night’s emotion, Bragg continued. “I was trying to think of a song I could play for this tonight. There’s an old song I know from the civil-rights days, written in 1968, but it may have some resonance now. You have a great weight to resolve this in a peaceable and transparent way, and you have our support.” Bragg and Purdy then began harmonizing on “Cryin’ in the Streets,” punctuating the line “I see people marching in the streets” with a powerful “Yeah!” and growing louder throughout the song.
At the end of the night, Bragg ceded the floor to Royale owner Smith, who emphasized that showing solidarity with the people of Ferguson was important. Pastor Steve Lawler of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson then shared a story about a little girl who recently collected food with her family amid the chaos. “She had a cartoon drawing of people getting food in her hand, and she wanted me to say something to the people who had given her this food.”
“What do you want me to tell them?” Lawler had asked the girl.
“Say thanks, and say don’t be afraid.”
The evening closed with the crowd on its feet, clapping and shouting along with Bragg and Purdy to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” but Bragg had one more thought as he closed the famous tune. “And liberty and justice for all!” he shouted, shaking the Royale patio with force. The audience agreed, erupting into “No justice, no peace,” another chant made famous recently in Ferguson.
Steven Smith surveyed the scene and vowed, “We’re going to create a new normal.”
Watch Bragg perform several songs in this video playlist by Stephen Houldsworth: