Genius in our Midst: Billy Bragg

The Bard of Barking: Photo by ITV/REX Shutterstock (941555ds) ‘The South Bank Show’ TV Billy Bragg ITV Archives

In 1983, Billy Bragg released his first album, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, unleashing his ferocious talent on the music world. In acts of pure alchemy, he merges the rough-edged punk of The Clash with the earnest protest folk of Phil Ochs and sprinkles his songwriting with a unique perspective on the relationship between men and women. Unlike almost every folkie out there, when he rocks out he does it right.

One of the things I love about his songwriting is the fun he has with words. He likes to take them apart and rearrange them, like this:

I’m not any good at pottery so let’s lose the ‘t’ and just shift back the ‘e’
And I’ll find a way to make my poetry build a roof over our heads

from Handyman Blues

and this:

Take the M for me and the Y for you
Out of family and it all falls through

Now, I’ve got friends who are telling me
They’re living in clover
But lose the C for commitment and the L for love
And it’s over, baby, it’s all over now

You keep on come telling me about your problems Let’s pull the Y off of your and throw it on the fire
And make ’em our problems, baby
Our problems now

from M for Me

Last month, Billy released his 13th studio album, The Million Things That Never Happened, and listening to it is like reading a letter from an old friend. The older I get, the more I appreciate the wisdom that comes with age and my old friend Billy shares a lot of it on this album.

Like an old friend…photo by James Millar

Earlier this week, near the end of a very long day that found me driving for 14 hours, this song came through the speakers of my car as I headed up the New Jersey Turnpike and I could not help but smile. If that is not genius, I don’t know what is.

Woke up this morning there was something dawning on me
Something I'd never seen, someone I'd never been
Came down for coffee and I could not find
Where I'd left my troubled mind
Opened the windows and the day blew in
It was fresh and new and it caressed my skin
It set me reeling, it was such a feeling
That it made me smile for the first time in a long while

But don't ask me how
I just don't know
Don't ask me why
I've got nothing to do but smile

And when I hit the street, felt light on my feet
Like if I tried, I just might fly
And every single face I see
Had a smile for me like I was royalty or something
The sun was shining on the avenue
And the shadows knew just what to do
They kinda parted as I walked on by
And the clouds went off to some other part of the sky

But don't ask me how
I just don't know
Don't ask me why
I've got nothing to do but smile

When I walked up to a traffic light
And to my delight it was set just right
I didn't even have to break my pace
It was like I owned the whole damn place
And all the birds were singing in the trees
I was hearing some amazing melodies
Before I knew it I was whistling along
So I sat right down and wrote this song

But don't ask me how
I just don't know
Don't ask me why
I've got nothing to do but smile

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