Meets Billy Bragg in Dublin to talk about his new book on skiffle, the often Bragg, one of Britain’s great protest singers, can’t stop thinking about the smouldering Grenfell
Billy Bragg is sitting in the bar of a swish boutique hotel in Dún Laoghaire, glorious summer sunshine and the sparkling Dublin Bay waters outside. But his mind is quite far away. Grenfell Tower in London is a smouldering ruin and he can’t stop thinking about it.
“I think it will be a tipping point,” he says. “There’s such anger out there about it — and completely justified, too. It’s a symbol about the way poor people have been treated in my country for a very long time. They’ve been treated with contempt.
“You can sense that people want a completely new type of government — one that’s got some compassion.”
That same day, Theresa May had turned up at the site of the tragedy, but did not meet grieving families, leading many to question both her powers of empathy and her leadership qualities that had been found to be so lacking in the weeks up to the recent UK general election.
Bragg thinks the Tory leader is on her last legs as PM and was enthused by the performance of Jeremy Corbyn in the election, despite considerable obstacles that had been put in his way.
“Most of the newspapers in the UK were in the May camp and demonised Corbyn as best they could,” he says, “but the young people — the ones who will be most affected by Brexit — could see through it and they came out on election day to support Corbyn in big numbers, and it was great to see.
“He has engaged them in the way that no other politician has done in a long time. You can see that he’s really been embraced by grime artists, especially, and that doesn’t surprise me one bit because that’s a genre that does more than most to lift the lid on the injustices in Britain today.”
Bragg is in Ireland to speak at the Dalkey Book Festival and he’s got a new book to promote. Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is a labour of love about an often maligned music movement that burned brightly in Britain for a few years in the 1950s. “It’s been largely forgotten about,” he argues, “and yet it’s the bridge to the great music that came out of Britain in the 1960s. The Beatles may have honed their craft in Hamburg but they had already been schooled in playing in front of audiences some years before that [in the skiffle band, the Quarrymen].”
Bragg became engaged by skiffle when he was in the US making a roots album centred on railways with the great US guitarist Joe Henry. “The roots of it go back to the 1850s,” he says, “and it had its moment across the Atlantic in Britain 100 years later.”
Bragg believes skiffle is significant for two reasons. “It was the first time that teenagers played music for other teenagers,” he says. “And it ushered in the idea that you did not need to have great musicianship to get up and play music. Of course, that would be echoed 20 years later with punk, but the idea came about in the 1950s.”
There was a DIY aspect to skiffle that would be reflected in the punk era, but was eschewed by the sophistication of the great British bands who came to define the 60s. None of them had much time for washboards — the crude ‘instrument’ that became popularised by skiffle — when they were holed up in expensive studios with every whim at their beck and call.
Unlike most other genres of music, skiffle didn’t leave a large body of recorded work.
“Remember, many of them were really young and had no access to recording studios and their sound
Corbyn’s been really embraced by grime artists, and that doesn’t surprise me