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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, August 27, 2003
    Bill at a crossroads
    Billy Bragg held his forefingers together in an 'X' shape before the Greenbelt crowd on Monday, and said, "I knew from the beginning that our paths would cross eventually."

    It looked like a benediction but it wasn't: it was an acknowledgement that 'socialism of the heart' and social-justice Christianity share common concerns, around which it's natural for their devotees to come together. So Christian Aid's Trade Justice campaign got Billy to Greenbelt and, in the words of a hardcore BB fan on the Billy Bragg Forum, he was "on absolutely top form".

    I think it was the most 'political' set I've heard him play; most of the songs were from that side of his repertoire, designed for a crowd in campaigning, world-changing mood. It brought out the complexity in his work, as even the more intimate songs he chose for Greenbelt, are forged in the heat of social struggle. Because that's how people's lives are: the young woman in 'Levi Stubbs Tears' ran away from home in her mother's best coat / She was married before she was even entitled to vote. Woody Guthrie's 'She Came Along to Me' welcomes the end of male-domination, in society as in the home, as a sign of things to come:
      And all creeds and kinds and colors
      of us are blending
      Till I suppose ten million years from now
      we'll all be just alike
      Same color, same size, working together
      And maybe we'll have all of the fascists
      out of the way by then
    As in any Bragg gig, he had the punters laughing (from the opening number, 'Sexuality' to which he gave an ironic twist about the Bishop of Reading affair), he dealt with heckers with inventive wit, he was full of explanation and presence and purpose. As in most Bragg gigs he was well-received, perhaps more than the average gig. It may have been the emotion in me, standing in a festival which has become a life-giving community for me, before a guy whose art has kept me alive, too, over many years of struggle, but I think he seemed struck by the warm welcome he got and by the audience's appreciation of his impassioned set.

    BB's path may have only just crossed with GB's. I've been on both of those paths for many years, both have run parallel for me. In the image Bill presented when he held his fingers together I guess I've always been at the centre, the hub. Which was why Monday night's gig was so special for me.
      Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is
      I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses
    - Bill sings; to which he might now add, mixing spirituality too. There was no tension between any of these at this seminal gig. That's why William Blake's presence was so welcome as Bill closed the show by opening his arms to invite us to join him, acapella, in the most heartfelt rendition of 'Jerusalem' I've ever had the joy to hear.

    "Sing it with the question-marks," says Bill:
      And did those feet in ancient time
      Walk upon England's mountains green?
      And was the Holy Lamb of God
      On England's pleasant pastures seen?
      And did the Countenance Divine
      Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
      And was Jerusalem builded here
      Amongst these dark satanic mills?

      Bring me my bow of burning gold
      Bring me my arrows of desire
      Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
      Bring me my Chariot of Fire.
      I will not cease from mental fight
      Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
      Till we have built Jerusalem
      In England's green and pleasant land.