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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)

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Song of the Day, , ,

Song of the Day: “Heart Like a Wheel”

Like Doctor Who on a bicycle….

That’s a fairly lame attempt at a riddle on the name of today’s Song of the Day, or rather pair of songs – two versions of “Heart Like a Wheel.” Two of them, so two hearts and two wheels. Time Lords, like Doctor Who, have two hearts, and bicycles… Get it? Okay, sorry, sorry. Let’s just get on with it…

The song “Heart Like a Wheel” was written by Canadian singer-songwriter Anna McGarrigle, who performed and recorded with her sister Kate McGarrigle from 1975 until Kate’s death in 2010. Their most productive period and time of greatest popularity was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Their work isn’t as widely known as it should be – they are quite wonderful.

“Heart Like a Wheel” was the title of Linda Rondstadt’s fifth solo album (1974), a commercial breakthrough for her and perhaps her best album, which featured the first recording of the eponymous McGarrigle song, as well as “You’re No Good,” one of Rondstadt’s biggest hits. “Heart Like a Wheel” was also the title of a 1983 film about Shirley Muldowney, “the First Lady of Drag Racing,” starring Bonnie Bedelia in the title role.

Here are two recordings of “Heart Like a Wheel” – the first by Kate & Anna McGarrigle from their self-titled debut album, and the second by Billy Bragg:

Kate & Anna McGarrigle, “Heart Like a Wheel” – from the album Kate & Anna McGarrigle (1975)

Billy Bragg, “Heart Like a Wheel” – from the album Reaching to the Converted

Okay, they wrote it and it’s a great song, but to me the McGarrigles’ version seems a bit pale and bloodless next to Billy Bragg’s performance. They sound sad, but… disengaged; it’s a bit precious. Billy sounds introspective, looking back on a lost love, and at moments, which is appropriate, truly heart-broken.

Billy Bragg is of course best known for his political songs – and justly so. “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward,” “Between the Wars,” “NPWA,” “It Says Here,” and his reworking of “The Internationale” are all terrific. I’ve been a huge fan of his since first hearing “Between the Wars” on the radio in 1985 – I was blown away at the time, and still am.

But over the years, I’ve come to love him as much for his quieter troubadour side as for his socialist songster moments, and that quieter side is in good form on “Heart Like a Wheel.” Of course, sometimes the two sides come together and produce some of Billy’s best work – at least for me – which is why William Bloke (1996) is possibly my favorite of his albums. Because of songs like this:

Billy Bragg, “From Red to Blue” – from William Bloke (1996)

Be sure to check out Billy Bragg’s official website – you can download songs for free, find out about concert tours, read about Billy Bragg’s activism and activities, and pick up some choice swag:

The internet offers huge potential for artists who want to make music on their own terms. As the old business model crumbles to dust, artists have much to gain from entering into dialogue with their fans, not least from encouraging them to buy their music directly from the farm gate, secure in the knowledge that the money they spend will support the artist in their work.

I want this website to be my main source of communication with the world: songs I record, articles that I write, clips I film on my phone, merchandising I produce, blogs, comments, posts, all will be available here.

It’s time to start our own revolution and cut out the middleman….

(via Billy Bragg.)

Filed under: Song of the Day, , ,

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zerode

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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