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Billy Bragg puts his message into more than just music

Billy Bragg's projects include a book, a theater piece and providing guitars to jail inmates.
Billy Bragg's projects include a book, a theater piece and providing guitars to jail inmates.

"The Bard of Barking" — it's a term long associated with Billy Bragg.

On one hand, Barking is the northeastern London town from which the famed singer and songsmith hails. But the title just as easily sums up the highly political temperament of Bragg's music and activism over the past 25 years. Such a mood re-ignited last spring when he campaigned against a candidate from the far-right British National Party for a Barking council seat.

But on a British bank holiday last week — the summer's last public holiday in England — Bragg seemed almost reflective. With a well-received performance the previous evening at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival behind him and a brief American tour looming that will bring him to Kentucky on Monday for the first time, Bragg seemed eager to engage stateside audiences so they can view him as a pop stylist as well as a political voice.

"Partly, this tour is about going to places where I've either not been to for a long time — like, say, Knoxville — or places we haven't been to at all, like Lexington. After 25 years of going to New York and Boston and Chicago, you tend to know what to expect. I've got no idea what to expect in Lexington.

"That's what I did in 2008, when I played the States just ahead of the election. It was very exciting for me because there were audiences that were familiar with my stuff and, maybe, had a preconceived idea that I would be very, very political. The truth is, I'm as much a writer of rock songs as political songs. That said, it was still a very interesting time to gauge people's feelings."

Coming to music as much through pub-friendly punk rock as through folk, Bragg was heartily endorsed to British audiences by pioneering disc jockey John Peel. By the end of the '80s, Bragg's reputation for activist punk folk was cemented with the career-defining albums Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (1986) and Workers Playtime (1988). A decade later, he made major inroads with young Americana audiences via the two-volume Mermaid Avenue, a collaboration with Wilco that centered around originally composed music for vintage (but unpublished) lyrics by Woody Guthrie, the iconic folk artist who also knew a few things about establishing a broad socio-political undertow in his music.

Still, the tone of Bragg's most recent recording, 2008's Mr. Love and Justice, reaches beyond the purely political. The opening I Keep Faith professes an independent streak that is as hopeful as it is defiant.

"If you think you have the answer, don't surprised if what you say is met with anger, contempt and lies," Braggs sings. Helping him out is a pop voice from another generation: Soft Machine co-founder and progressive song stylist Robert Wyatt.

"Songs like I Keep Faith have become very key to my concert sets these days. That's always positive to note, because when you've been playing live for nearly 30 years, you don't want to be reliant on just playing old stuff.

"But I Keep Faith also came about very much by accident. Robert happened to live in a town near where we were recording. I've known him since the '80s, so he came over to our studio and put some beautiful vocals on I Keep Faith. He lifted that song in a way that was really, really magical."

Now, with Mr. Love and Justice more than 2 years old, Bragg is at work on several new projects. Among them, a theater piece called Pressure Drop, based on Bragg's 2006 book, The Politics of Identity (four demo songs from the production are available as free downloads on his Web site, Billybragg.co.uk), an upcoming recording collaboration with Joe Henry and Rosanne Cash, and a campaign called Jail Guitar Doors, which supplies guitars to incarcerated felons as a means of rehabilitation.

"It's a nice position to be in," Bragg said of the current state of his career. "I mean, I'm so amazed that after so long of doing this, I'm still able to travel, make music and make a living doing it. Last night, for instance, I played to about 5,000 people at a festival. They were very appreciative. They sang along with my old songs. They applauded the new ones.

"And now to think people in Lexington might be interested that I'm coming to town, ... I can't tell you how pleased I am about that. That's the idea between going to, for me, new towns. It's almost like a renewal."

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