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Song of the Day: From Red to Blue – by Billy Bragg

One of my favorite tracks from what is perhaps my favorite Billy Bragg album…

Billy Bragg, “From Red to Blue” – from the album William Bloke

William Bloke comes at what feels like something of a midpoint in Billy Bragg’s career. It’s roughly at the half-way mark in terms of chronology and discography, but more than that it seems to mark a musical shift, and a maturation of sorts. Among other things, it’s simply so good, so clearly the album he’s been building towards, that some sort of change was necessary after.

It was followed by the Mermaid Avenue albums – studio and live – and then his two most recent works, England, Half English and Mr. Love and Justice, which continue the musical and thematic interests that have marked Bragg’s career, but which also seem qualitatively different from the work prior to William Bloke. I’m not sure yet how to characterize the change, but these last two albums definitely represent a shift, more sonically, musically, than thematically, but maybe there as well.

It’s fitting, then, that coming as it does at a sort of middle age for Bragg’s career one of the songs on the album addresses the issue of aging and change, of the changes that middle age can bring, head on.

In “From Red to Blue,” Bragg sings to a friend who has grown older and become a father, but who in the process has let his political commitments and engagements lapse, subsidy – who has “opted out” of the ideals that he used to share with the singer.

Bragg acknowledges that there have been changes, and in particular that parenthood brings changes:

Should I vote red for my class
or green for our children?

But the “blue” is not a change like the “green” – it represents a loss of principles. The green vs red distinction is still a matter of political commitment, of ideals and principles. Blue is giving up.

Listening to the song in the United States, the red and blue must surely resonate with the trope that has now become a fixture of political life and commentary: the red state/blue state split.  But that of course could introduce an element of confusion. In this US political context, red signifies the right/conservative side of the political split:

Red states and blue states: “The terms ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ came into use in 2000 to refer to those states of the United States whose residents predominantly vote for the Republican Party or Democratic Party presidential candidates, respectively. A blue state tends to vote for the Democratic Party, and a red state tends to vote for the Republican Party…” (via Wikipedia.)

In the English and also more general context, red of course refers to the the left, and more specifically to socialist and communist tendencies. And green of course to ecology and environmental commitments and values. What about the blue? Removed from that American red state/blue state context, the blue can only refer to a degree of sadness, melancholy, depression.

It’s in this sense that the trope of “from red to blue” doesn’t work so well when you look at it closely, though lyrically it is still brilliant and catchy. We are shown a man who has become a father and gained a measure of financial success, which he has spent on “the best [his] money could buy,” selling his soul “for their bright shining lie.” Bragg may feel sad about this change – I certainly do when I see it in my friends, or feel elements of it in myself – but there is no sense that the subject of the song, the man it’s about/to, feels the same way, feels blue about these changes. While we may see that this man has lost what Bragg calls, on another song on the album, “a socialism of the heart,” he doesn’t seem heart-sick about it.

Still, despite any quibbles with the central trope,  it’s a wonderful song, one of my favorites from the album – though I have to admit that I would class about half the songs on it as “favorites,” which somewhat attenuates the distinction.

A quick final note: the obvious song to think about in relation to this one, thematically, is The Clash, “Working for the Clampdown” from London Calling:

Well you grow up and you calm down
And you’re working for the clampdown.
You start wearing blue and brown
You’re working for the clampdown.

For more…

(lyrics below the fold)

Billy Bragg, “From Red to Blue”

Another day dawns grey. It’s enough to make me spit.
But we go on our way, just putting up with it
And when I try to make my feelings known to you
You sound like you have changed from red to blue.

You’re a father now, you see things in different ways
For every parent will gain perspective on their wilder days
But that alone does not explain the change I see in you
The way you’ve drifted off from red to blue.

Sometimes I think to myself
Should I vote red for my class
or green for our children?
But whatever choice I make
I will not forsake.

So you bought it all, the best your money could buy
And I watched you sell your soul for their bright shining lie.
Where are the principles of the friend I thought I knew
I guess you let them fade from red to blue

I hate the compromises that life forces us to make
We must all bend a little if we are not to break.
But the ideals you’ve opted out of,
I still hold them to be true.
I guess they weren’t so firmly held by you

Filed under: Song of the Day, , ,

2 Responses

  1. fwsober says:

    Blue is the colour of the (right-wing) conservative party in Britain, so the song is clearly about a political shift.

    • zerode says:

      As Wayne says (in “Wayne’s World”), I was not aware of that. Do you think that Billy Bragg is really singing about someone who’s changed from socialist to conservative, though? As opposed to changing to morose and disaffected – blue in that sense? Because it seems to me that he would be much more aggressive, excoriating, in his tone and language were that the case. The overall sound – the musical qualities – seem to me to argue more in favor of that reading of the shift as to morose rather than to the conservative party…

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows


is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.



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