Billy Bragg – There is Power in a Union
This past August, while we were in Sweden visiting my mother-in-law, I had the chance to see Billy Bragg. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen him but they were all a long time ago, in the 80s and 90s. His songs from that time were often railing against Thatcherism and corporate greed, songs in defense of workers and the oppressed, all of which are eerily just as relevant today as they were 25-30 years ago.
Sweden isn’t a complete paradise but given how things are here now, I couldn’t wait to leave everything behind for a few weeks this summer and immerse myself in the future liberals want. The prospect of a Billy Bragg show was the cherry on top. I go to shows by myself all the time and I’ll often travel some significant distances to get there. But traveling for a show and traveling and catching a show while you’re there are two different things. For some reason I have been dying to catch a show while traveling for years and years. Maybe it’s the element of doing what the locals do, or the sheer luck of having a band you’d want to see be in the same city and it’s not sold out and the tickets aren’t too expensive. The stars align.
My husband is a good sport who doesn’t mind that I go off on my own to concerts but as he hadn’t been to the venue before and we weren’t sure about the bus situation to get me back to his mother’s apartment afterwards, we figured we should do a dry run the day before. Diagonally across the street is a huge old chocolate factory that has been transformed into a theater arts high school and cultural center. Down the street just a little farther is a square with a daily farmers’ market, lots of ethnic restaurants, and a statue called Arbetets ära (The Honor of Work). It shows a group of men and women holding up a large boulder with the city in relief on the stone. My husband told me the now defunct worker’s newspaper Arbetet, used to be in that same two-block stretch. This was a working class neighborhood going way back.
I managed to get to the club in time to join a short but growing line of people waiting for the doors to open. I came early since I didn’t have a ticket but this also allowed me to snag a spot just at the edge of the stage. There wasn’t an opening band and Billy was either solo or with CJ Hillman accompanying him on a variety of stringed instruments. He played a lot of old favorites and he talked about the fact that his old songs are still just as apt, given the state of the world today. There were newer songs too, about climate change, building walls, white supremacists, abdicating facts, and Brexit. He talked about not giving in to cynicism and the need for us all to believe in each other. Not to worry, there were plenty of songs for the lovelorn too.
But the best moment came toward the end, when he dedicated the next song to the striking dock workers in Gothenburg and launched into “There is Power in a Union.” I wish you could have been there. To be in a foreign country, surrounded by people with their fists in the air, all passionately singing “The union forever, defending our rights, down with the blackleg, all workers unite, with our brothers and our sisters, from many far off lands, there is power in a union.” It makes me tear up just remembering it. When the song ended, Billy Bragg said he hadn’t heard that rousing a sing along to that song in many years. I was up front so I couldn’t get a picture but I found one on Instagram later that caught the moment.
When the show ended and I made my way outside, past the dozens of bikes parked across the street to get the bus, across the street from the old factory, down the block from the workers statue, I was so glad he had played that song there. It felt so perfect. And I am so happy that after years of hoping to see a show while we are in Sweden, this was the show that finally made it happen.
I had contemplated going to see Billy Bragg in New York when he was here in October but I decided it wasn’t going to top my August show in Malmö and I love having that memory to think back on when things look dark. I read a number of super depressing things today that really made me despair that we’ll ever prevail against these forces of fascism. So I came back to this post that I had started just after our vacation and am feeling a little better about things now. These dark forces we are fighting are really dark. Sleep well. Be ready. We are not alone. I’ll be next to you with my fist in the air.
P.S. Did you watch Pride yet? Get on that!