April 26, 2010 / 4:25 PM / 7 years ago

Billy Bragg sings about English identity in play

<p>British musician Billy Bragg poses inside his hotel room in New York October 16, 2008. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton</p>

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Musician Billy Bragg wants the English to think about what it means to be English.

The 52-year-old singer and songwriter, who is as well known for his politics as his music, has collaborated on the play “Pressure Drop,” which delves into the issues of personal identity and belonging.

Bragg has contributed five new songs and plays them with his band as part of the production, being performed at London’s Wellcome Collection until May 12 as part of nine months of events at the gallery on the theme of identity.

The play, Bragg’s first foray into the theater, is about three generations of the white, working-class Clegg family and their anxieties about how their town is becoming more racially and culturally diverse.

Pressure Drop, described in the publicity material as part play, part gig, and part installation, takes place on three stages for the actors and one stage for Bragg and his band. The audience walk around, following the actors as they move between the stages, with Bragg at the center of the action as the troubadour chorus who links the scenes together with his songs.

As the Cleggs prepare to bury the family patriarch Ron, a reggae-loving decorated World War II veteran, family friend Tony hovers in the background, eager for Clegg son, Jack, to run in the town council elections.

Although no one mentions the name of the party Jack is thinking of standing for, references are clearly to a far-right, anti-immigration party.

And from there it is no stretch to imagine that the Cleggs are in Bragg’s hometown of Barking, Essex, the east London suburb where Bragg has been vigorously campaigning to stop British National Party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin from winning a parliamentary seat in the May 6 general election.

These are connections Bragg, known as the “Bard of Barking,” and the play’s author, Mick Gordon, want the audience to make.

“We have a situation where, like it or not, we have to face it that a lot of people are voting for a very ugly group of people and the values that they stand for. And we need to ask ourselves why.” Gordon said.

“And one of the unpalatable truths is because a huge population of white, working-class folks feel alienated from their own country and their own reference points. They don’t recognize where they live any longer and they feel frightened enough to vote for the BNP.”

Bragg is also concerned that people who have emigrated to England, and their children, will often identify themselves as British but not English.

“That’s failure for we English. To fail to make our identity open to someone who’s born in England, who speaks with an English accent like me but happens to be wearing a headscarf when they come to interview me,” he said.

Bragg said he realized just how topical the play was when he found out BNP leader Griffin was running for office in Barking.

“I had to drop a line to Mick and Chris (director Christopher Haydon) and say, actually guys we have to be a little more ... targeted. We can’t have any ambiguity here,” Bragg said.

Bragg said the play was a natural next step for him.

“Well, 25 years of making albums, you kind of look for other things to do that engage. I can make albums till the cows come home. I know what it feels like, I know what it smells like, I know how it works. But this is something completely new,” he said.

The initial plan had been to take songs from Bragg’s back catalog, but that slowly changed as the play grew and Bragg began to write songs to voice his own thoughts about what was happening in the script.

“Well, it’s no challenge to me is it to sit there playing ‘A New England’,” he said of the song for which he is probably best known. “If people want to see that sort of thing let them go see ‘Mama Mia’. This is something that is happening (now). And our job as artists is to reflect society and the way we see it,” he said.

He said he ended up with about eight songs, too many for the play. He continued to tinker with them right up until opening night and said he expected they would continue to evolve over the play’s run.

“You know reading it on paper and seeing it live are two completely different experiences. You get the power from it. Then you know what this song needs to do,” Bragg said.

Four of the five songs that made the cut can be downloaded for free from Bragg’s website www.billybragg.co.uk and he said when the play ends, he will record the final versions of all the songs for a CD.

While Bragg has been making a lot of noise during this election, there has been a noticeable absence of other musicians and celebrities on the campaign trail.

Bragg said he thought many well known people were giving this year’s election a miss because politicians as a group had such a bad reputation and it’s tough enough for celebrities to manage their own reputations.

“You see in our job people are all aware -- without the politics, just the specter of celebrity -- what can go wrong if you put your head above the parapet,” he said.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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