Billy Bragg uses music to fight cynicism and help others connect during a tumultuous political era.
There are many reasons Billy Bragg loves Seattle, but let’s start with the weather. “For us Brits, the climate is conducive to us,” he joked on the phone recently.
And then, as with any discussion with the acclaimed singer-songwriter, the topic quickly switched to worker’s rights, and songwriting inspirations. “Seattle has always been a place with a different sensibility about it,” Bragg said. “It’s a blue-collar port town, which I quite like, plus I’ve done a lot of union gigs there in the ’90s. Then, there’s the Columbia River, which Woody Guthrie wrote about.”
Bragg’s career includes 16 albums since 1983, filled with political anthems and sentimental love songs. A couple were gold records, but his 1998 “Mermaid Avenue” collaboration with Wilco was one his highest profile. The Guthrie estate essentially gave Bragg carte blanche to finish some of Guthrie’s songs, and the resulting albums were marvelous.
8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1, Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $40-$45 (800-745-3000 or stgpresents.org).
His most recent creative work is a best-selling book, “Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World.” Bragg switches to professor mode explaining the genre — best illustrated by Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island Line.”
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“Donegan was the first British artist to get on the charts playing guitar, as it had not been part of British pop culture before that,” he says. Donegan inspired the Beatles, and a generation, which is part of Bragg’s theory about why the British Invasion would dominate the U.S. charts in the ’60s.
“Our British boys had a two-year edge on American boys, and were already playing in Hamburg clubs as the States became interested,” Bragg says. “So we already had whole cadres of ready-made bands set to come to America.”
Bragg’s Seattle date starts his “Bridges not Walls” tour, and politics will most certainly be on the docket. He’s just released a cover of Anais Mitchell’s 2010 “Why We Build the Wall.”
“It sounds like a brand-new folk song to me, and that’s a tribute to Anais,” he said. “It sounds like a song Pete Seeger has been singing for 90 years. I can’t write a song better than this.”
Bragg himself has written classics, and many will be heard at the Neptune. This is his solo “Bash-Them-Out-Bragg” persona, combining hits with newly released fiery political anthems. “I’m just responding to the way things are — with smoke in the air, Brexit, Trump,” he says.
It’s an awful time for politics, he notes, but an important time for songwriting, even as the 59-year-old Bragg recognizes that music “no longer has a vanguard role in youth culture.” In his generation, brought up on punk, “music decided who you hung out with, who you hated, who you were. It doesn’t have that singular role now.”
Cynicism is the world’s biggest political enemy, he says. There is a cure, though, which is central to Bragg’s songs whether they are about the state, or the heart.
“Music allows us to feel empathy for people we don’t know,” he says. “You can never underestimate that power.”