English Channeling

TIME FLIES. YOU glance around and five years have passed. Unless you're a Billy Bragg fan, that is. In that case, the years since 1991 and Don't Try This at Home have dragged so slowly you can count the seconds.

Music "A few people have come up to me on the street," Bragg admits, "and asked what I've been up to. I pull out the baby pictures and they understand. Then they wonder when I'll have a new record out, and I tell them, 'It's coming.' "

Or, rather, it's here. William Bloke appeared in September, a collection of Billy Bragg songs exactly the way you want them: political, memorable and with that mile-wide romantic streak still firmly in place.

If you want, blame Jack for this album taking so long. Jack is Bragg's son, almost three now, and Bill took the time to see him grow--something he wouldn't have missed for the world. "It used to be I'd record and tour," he says. "My world was just me, that was all I had to think about. I'd be home for two weeks and then I'd be ready to go out again. For the last few years, I've had a reason to stay at home."

But as he's been learning parenting skills, the world around Mr. B. has changed. Russia's turned into a free-market economy and China's heading that way. Even Margaret Thatcher has vanished from the political scene. "You could talk about her, and she had such a high profile that everyone knew who she was," he sighs. "It's just not the same with John Major. In America most people haven't heard of him."

Or of Tony Blair, the leader of the Labour Party, who, if opinion polls are correct, will succeed Major as Prime Minister. "There's a saying that there's an inch of difference between Labour and the Tories, and in that inch we all survive," he says. "What we need in politics is compassion and commitment, and there's not much of that: a socialism of the heart."

Billy certainly still has those things. He may be a little richer than when he started out in the early-'80s, but the acquisition of a few personal comforts doesn't mean the political fire has died. "I'll always think of myself as working class," he says proudly. " 'A gentleman socialist,' as someone said. I've learned that a little money brings responsibility--not just to your immediate family, but to make sure your nieces and nephews have new shoes. Things like that."

In both Britain and America, where the safety nets of the poor are disappearing into the pockets of the rich, he remains an important voice. "Clinton had his picture taken on a picket line. Tony Blair had his taken on the set of (British soap opera) Coronation Street. That says a lot, doesn't it?"

The political has always been personal, and vice versa, for Bragg. He acknowledges now that, "I'm a folk singer. I'm in the tradition. About the only difference between me and Phil Ochs, who was also political, is that I heard The Clash and I play an electric guitar."

That's evident on "Thatcherites," a rewrite of the traditional "Ye Jacobites by Name," on the B-side of the British single "Upfielf"; or on a new song like "Northern Industrial Town," which probably already has people poised over acoustic guitars, learning the words. "It's very circular," says Bragg, "and it has a little jolt at the end, just like a folk song should."

In fact, it's folk music that's given him his biggest recent thrill: Norma Waterson (a British folk goddess) covered a Bragg song, "St. Swithin's Day," on her solo album--which almost plucked the coveted Mercury Prize from the paws of Pulp. "I didn't even know she'd done it until I was reading an article where she said she'd covered songs by her favorite writers, and my name was there. I called the label and asked for a copy. Then, when I played the Cambridge Folk Festival, I persuaded her to come onstage with me. We decided to do 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken?' Norma said she'd do the chorus and I could sing the verses. I thought, 'Verses? I thought there was only one verse.' So we ended up just singing it over and over." TW

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