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.
(lyrics below the fold)
Read the rest of this entry »
Filed under: Song of the Day, Billy Bragg, music, Politics