Fort Adams is a former US army outpost, built in the mid-19th century to defend the approaches to Narragansett Bay and the strategic city of Newport, which was established on the isle from which the state of Rhode Island takes its name. For one weekend in July, the fort – now a state park – functions as the setting for the Newport Folk Festival. Joe Henry and I are here to perform material from our album of railroad songs, recorded on a train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles last year.
Browsing through a photo gallery of artists who appeared at the festival over breakfast the next morning, it occurs to me that I may have been the oldest performer on Saturday’s bill. While this might give cause for concern at Reading/Leeds or V Festival, it’s not something to worry about at Newport. One of the nice things about folk music audiences is that they actively encourage you to grow old. If I’m still doing this job in 15 years’ time and have grown to look like Burl Ives – imagine Falstaff with a Spanish guitar – they’ll still book me for the Cambridge Folk Festival. Sadly, for many of my contemporaries, rock audiences are not so forgiving. If Morrissey goes the same way – portly, bewhiskered and bald – he’s finished.
A skiffler’s trip to the library
I’m in Washington, DC, to deliver a talk at the Library of Congress on skiffle, the 1950s roots music craze that introduced the guitar to UK pop music and acted as a nursery for the British invasion of the US charts. The movement began in January 1956, when Lonnie Donegan scored his first hit single with a cover of Lead Belly’s classic railroad song “Rock Island Line”.
I’ve been invited to speak at this august institution because many of the skifflers were sourcing their material from the Library of Congress recordings, which were available to borrow from the United States Information Service at the embassy in Grosvenor Square, London. The library archivists have a special treat for me: the brown paper sleeve of the original recording of “Rock Island Line” made by John A Lomax, assisted by Lead Belly, at Cummins prison farm near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1934. The ten-inch shellac disc they cut that day is stored elsewhere, but the sleeve, bearing Lomax’s handwritten notes, is removed from its protective folder and passed to me. I become acutely aware that I’m holding in my hands an artefact from the earliest moments of the genesis of British pop music.
The boy wizard’s Govian sheen
Recent changes in US work-permit rules necessitate an early-morning trip to a federal building in lower Manhattan. On seeing my passport, the woman behind the glass starts chatting about Doctor Who, Harry Potter and Brexit as she processes my application. We ponder whether these two quintessential representatives of modern Britain would have voted Leave. I point out that the Time Lord (or should that be Lady?) is an alien, so we assume she would have voted Remain. But the boy wizard? Given that he went to private school, I’d expect him to have a Govian enthusiasm for all things Brexit. He just looks like a Tory.
Corbyn’s Brexit waiting game
The anger among some hard Remainers at Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to come out in total opposition to Brexit is audible from across the Atlantic. Yet if we really want to salvage our membership of the European Union, it just doesn’t make tactical sense for Labour to start campaigning for Remain at the moment. To do so would risk uniting the Tories and reviving Ukip. Better to wait until negotiations reveal the true cost of Brexit and public opinion starts to shift.
I realise that this flies in the face of commentariat orthodoxy, which paints the Labour leadership as ideologically pro-Brexit, and is heresy for those Corbyn supporters who believe pragmatism was one of the sins of New Labour. Yet while the party’s ambiguous stance on Brexit may be frustrating for some, don’t be too surprised if, a year or so from now, Corbyn declares himself to be in favour of Remain and reform – especially if that position appears to offer a path to Downing Street.
Home from America just long enough to wash my smalls and boil my hankies, I’m off again to play a string of dates in Italy, Croatia and Austria. The morning before I go, I have to launch my new single, “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood”, three minutes of reflection on the perils of global warming. In the old days, this would have involved weighty pressings of vinyl being distributed around the country by heavy vehicles, creating a cloud of emissions. Today, all I have to do is post a link to the video clip and head off to the airport, leaving the internet to take care of distribution while I fly to Milan for the first show.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: what’s the point of making a zero-carbon release of a new single if you then jet off to Europe, creating polluting emissions in the process? However, research has revealed that it is not we performers who are responsible for the carbon footprint of touring – that is almost wholly created by the audience. The emissions given off by those attending the gig can be considerable, especially in a place like America, where people think nothing of driving for hours to watch their favourite band.
Naturally, those artists who travel with a huge entourage and staging will have a greater responsibility for emissions, but for a solo performer such as myself, the implication is that I should be doing more touring, not less, seeking out venues that are more easily accessible to my fans in order to discourage them from travelling vast distances to see me perform. After all, it would only require two of them to fly to Britain from New York with the intention of catching a date on my November tour to match all of my personal carbon footprint from my recent US trip.
Billy Bragg’s UK tour starts on 5 November
This article appears in the 09 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon