29 September 2005

Billy Bragg & Dick Gaughan - The Red Flag


Billy Bragg's wonderful 1988 album Worker's Playtime contains many of his best relationship songs - The Short Answer, Must I Paint You A Picture, Valentine's Day Is Over, The Price I Pay - all articulating emotional misfirings of various kinds with eloquence, wit and incisive melancholic grace.

But touring in the USA afterwards Bragg met Pete Seeger, one of the original Wody Guthrie era protest singers who, though aged nearly 70 at that time, still fighting as hard as ever.

The arresting effect on Bragg meant the next record came out without the luscious arrangements, the heartbreaks or the kitchen sink drama, but with a brisk and potent shout of political intent.

The Internationale is mostly covers, with Billy looking around the world and - a clear decade ahead of others - looking to home and singing Jerusalem as an inclusive anthem. This is the first time I ever saw it claimed as anything other than repugnant English jingoism.

Jerusalem had long been put alongside songs of racist shite like Land of Hope and Glory. Or Rule Britannia which declares that Britons never shall be slaves. That song was written at a time when slavery was a cornerstone of our national modus operandi. It isn't merely declaring that we are too good for slavery; it says that the subjugation we gladly inflict on others must never be inflicted on us. Remember that next time anyone tells you Last Night At The Proms is harmless patriotic fun.

But Jerusalem is something different. It doesn't declare us to be better than anyone simply because we're from round here. It says this land is fucked over by the industrialists, that we have work to do to improve it, and we must never stop making this a better place for us and those who follow after.

It was a bold, audacious move, to play it straight and sweet, in a manner not dissimilar to Roddy Frame's reading of The Red Flag.

Which is where we get on board with Billy. He teamed up with Scottish political folkster Dick Gaughan - whose Think Again he'd covered on the B-side of Levi Stubb's Tears in 1986 - and recorded The Red Flag set to its original tune; not the grand hymnal plod we know, but a jaunty Celtic jig.

As the sleevenote explained;

The Red Flag was written in December 1889 by Jim Connell, an Irishman. Inspired by the London dock strike he wrote the song on a train journey between Charing Cross and New Cross stations setting the lyrics to the old Jacobite air The White Cockade.

It immediately became popular with socialist singers throughout Britain but for some reason the tune was changed in 1895 to Tannenbaum, the version sung by the Labour Party to this day. Connell was outraged, claiming that the new tune murdered his lyrics. Here we have restored the original, a sprightly reel not a funereal dirge.

[MP3 deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]

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