Monday Music: “There Is Power In a Union” by Billy Bragg

Billy+Bragg

Today’s Monday Music post comes from regular Boiled Down Juice author, Nic Hartmann, who discusses how Bragg’s music draws from past generations to remind us of the work still left to be done.  Want to contribute to our Monday Music series and tell your story about a song or artist? Click here to contact us. 

 

One day, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I saw a sign that Billy Bragg was going to be performing at Holy Heart Theatre, a high school auditorium that has hosted many major artists, including Ricky Skaggs and Leonard Cohen. I’d only heard of his name at that point, but I had decided that I was going to take a chance with my pocket money and buy a ticket to the show.

Being curious about who he was, I found a clip of Billy performing “There is Power in a Union” during a 2002 performance at the AFL-CIO building. There he was, dressed in street clothes and accompanied by a local protest figure, Britannia the Cheerleader. And he was on fire. His guitar strummed with passion, his voice brought forth conviction, and his words- “The union forever/defending our rights/down with the blackleg/the workers unite!”- were a cry for unity.

When the time came to see him in person, I found myself drawn to his simple stage setup- a guitar, a couple of amps, and a table with a cup of tea. It was as if Billy did not need fluff; his stage setup was reflective of much of his early music, which consisted of him singing and playing guitar.

As he played, he would frequently receive fresh cups of tea from a stagehand- Throat Coat, he told us- and filled the time in between songs with simple talk, ranging in topic from his thoughts on the beauty (or, in his case, the lack thereof) of Newfoundland’s provincial museum, The Rooms, to an idea for an addition to the local Newfoundland and Labrador dog statues. While not nearly on the same level of absurd hilarity as the late Utah Phillips, the connection between the two singers was certainly noticeable, particularly in their ability to tell stories, in their firm convictions towards both unions and labor solidarity, and in their neverending commitment to fighting injustice.

While he has many songs that discuss individual injustice, particularly surrounding romance (“Levi Stubbs’ Tears” is a solid example of this), “There is Power in a Union” is a call to stand up for a greater injustice. There is also a push for all of us to work on behalf of those who might not be able to counter their own sufferings:

 

Now I long for the morning that they realise

Brutality and unjust laws can not defeat us

But who’ll defend the workers who cannot organise

When the bosses send their lackies out to cheat us?

The song fosters brother/sisterhood, promotes social responsibility, and reminds us that we have much to do. And, on top of that, it’s far from sounding preachy, but rather alludes to the traditional union songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (The fact that the song is an arrangement of the IWW classic “There Is Power in a Union” and the Civil War-era “Battle Cry of Freedom” only adds to this allusion).  A century later, Billy Bragg is keeping such spirits alive, and doing so while having a cup of tea and bantering with his audience.

For me, that invitation to connect with a musician on an everyday level is a major inspiration for my work as a folklorist. It’s also a reminder that there is much left to do.

Check out the video below to hear Bragg singing the song at AFL/CIO building in 2002.

 

Want to join us in this series and share your own story for Monday Music ? Click here to contact us. We’d love to hear from you.

 

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nic (1)Nic Hartmann A doctoral candidate in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Nic Hartmann is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Folk Studies & Anthropology at Western Kentucky University, where he is also an active part of the $100 Solution service-learning project. Nic lives in Bowling Green with his wife, Jen, and daughter, Mari, and is an avid dancer and gardener.