Toby Venables talks to Billy Bragg at Cambridge Folk Festival 2008

Toby Venables talks to Billy Bragg at Cambridge Folk Festival 2008
Artist Visiting Cambridgeshire
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Toby: It was a great set last night and got an incredible response from the Festival crowd. Was it good for you?

Billy: Yeah! When you generally do anything from 105-120 minute sets, to condense that into an hour can be a bit of a challenge, but equally when you're at a festival you want to play some rousing songs that lift people up, so I get to play some things I don't normally play. I don't normally do the Bob Marley One Love thing, getting people to do all the movements. But it's such a nice thing to get everyone to do that and I have such a laugh doing it.
T: The final encore with Martin Carthy and Chris Wood was a great and unexpected moment, too.

B: That's a Richard Thompson song called New St George - an old song, which I was introduced to by Rachel Unthank. I knew Chris Wood was going to be here so I was talking to him about getting up and doing it and he was pretending he didn't know the lyrics, but Martin knew all the lyrics so he chipped in and the three of us rehearsed it a few times in the dressing room. It sounded great. And it seemed a way to end with something special - and that's what you have the opportunity to do at a festival; there are people around who you can work with to do something different. Those people who saw me last time at the Junction won't have seen me do that, and that's what's at the back of your mind: ‘What can I do today that's engaging and different?'

T: You looked like you really felt it was special too - you even flung your arms around them at the end.

B: I did, I did... Because it's such a great song to sing, and it does - for me, anyway - evoke the sentiments that I've been trying to evoke about Englishness, you know. ‘Freedom was your mother, fight for one another, leave the factory leave the forge and dance to the new St George...' It sounds like it could have been a song the Chartists or the Suffragists or even the New Model Army might have sung marching out of East Anglia, and it's a tribute to Richard Thompson's songwriting that it sounds like that, because it was written by him in the 1970s. But it's a great song, and I can imagine me doing it more often now I feel confident with it. One of the reasons it felt so special at the end was it worked, because when you do it in the dressing room and it sounds all right and then you do it on the stage it doesn't always come off. But that really did, I thought.

T: It certainly ended on a high.

B: Well, that's what you want to do. When I said to them ‘We'll finish with this,' they both said ‘No, no - you've got to finish with New England...' But I thought ‘Yeah, yeah, but... I know how to do this! Don't worry...' Also, I felt the audience really appreciated I Keep Faith, which I don't think most of them will have heard before, but which allowed me to lay on them the idea that they and they alone are capable of changing the world, and this song is an expression of my faith in their ability to do that. They really responded positively to that, which encourages me.

T: And of course, being a democratic sort, you had the audience choose a song for you. I couldn't see how the voting went from where I was standing - did Bob Marley beat The Carpenters by much? Did it have to go to the Supreme Court?

B: It wasn't close - I would say two thirds to a third. Sometimes the Carpenters win it. If they're up against Bob Dylan they sometimes win. Depends where you are. Sometimes the audience just wants to embarrass you or don't really believe you can play it. A few people have said to me ‘You weren't really going to play the Carpenters were you?' Trust me, I was.

T: Which Carpenteres song would it have been?

BB: Superstar. [singing:] ‘Long ago and oh so far away, I fell in love with you, before the second show...' Yeah, no problem. I used to busk all these songs.

T: Last time I spoke to you here, several years ago, I asked you your thoughts on the government of the day, and being an optimistic sort you said we had to give them a chance. How do you feel about that now?

B: Disappointed. No two ways about it. But not cynical. Cynicism is the enemy of all of us who want to make a better society - much more of an enemy than capitalism or conservativism, and we have to guard against it. If we want to change the world we have to remain engaged, so you gotta find ways to do that. Like I said last night, what we do when we go from this place is what counts - not just cheering me when I attack the Daily Mail as I did last night. That's easy. It's easy for me to say it, it's easy for them to shout, but actually going out and doing something about it, that's difficult, and you can't do that if you're feeling cynical. Cynics have all the answers and they're all negative.

T: I wanted to take this opportunity to ask you about your most famous song - Unisex Chipshop [actually a Billy Bragg parody by Bill Bailey] then discovered just before coming here that you actually performed it with Bill a could of years ago...

B: It came about by pure accident. My son loves Unisex Chipshop. He was about nine or ten at the time and we were listening to it in the car, and he said ‘Why don't you play that one day, dad?' And I said ‘I'll tell you what I'll do - I'll play it next year at Leftfield at Glastonbury, and everyone will be so drunk that I bet no one notices'. So I've rehearsed it and I'm ready to go, and two hours before, as you do at Glastonbury, I bumped into Bill Bailey. And I said ‘Bill, you gotta come down ‘cause I'm gonna do Unisex Chipshop'. He said ‘Great - I'll bring my guitar...'. So he got up on stage with me, much to my son's delight and amazement, and we did Unisex Chipshop - except I remembered more of the words than Bill did.

T: You're probably the one artist I can think of who would embrace the singing of a song parodying themselves. I can't see Chris De Burgh doing Bill Bailey's Beautiful Ladies in Danger, for example.

B: No, that's not going to happen! But you misunderstand the credibility that Bill gave me. I can remember watching TV with my godson, who was about 15 at the time and thought Bill Bailey was the bees knees. And there was Bill doing a Billy Bragg mickey take, and my godson looked at me and said ‘My God - he know's who you are!' And I'm like, ‘Yeah, isn't that strange Jamie..?' So part of the reason young people come to my gigs is probably down to Bill, giving me a big up. I wish he'd keep doing it.

T: But I think your stand up is as good as his.

B: Thank you. You know, I probably have more in common with Bill than I do with the Levellers. It's a fine line. I even do the occasional funny song. It's an odd thing though, why more artists don't talk to their audiences, because they're smart guys. Mark from the Levellers said it last night when we were finishing the show - he was talking on the mic and he said ‘Billy, you say it - you know what to say...' And it's like ‘Just say what you wanna say, mate. It's not a skill!' If you can get up and play guitar and sing, just talk to the audience like I'm talking to you now. It's not that difficult...

Writer: Toby Venables

Photo: Claire Borley