One for Friday: Billy Bragg, “The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions”

On this day, when crass consumerism reigns supreme, I woke up with a Billy Bragg song galloping through my head. So even as I watched the morning news programs, wherein all the more important, more meaningful, more troubling developments of the day were pushed to deep on the segment list in favor of grotesquely chipper reports on which sales were generating the most aggressive enthusiasm among desperate holidays shoppers, my mental accompaniment involved a distinct Essex accent delivering the battle cry “We’re making the world safe for capitalism!”

Bragg was one of the artists I clung to most gratefully upon my happy immersion into college radio, in the fall of 1988. His wonderful album Workers Playtime was right there in Heavy Rotation, begging to be played again and again. Besides his crack songwriting and bright, devoted playing, Bragg delivered exactly the sort of impassion, left-leaning political viewpoints that spoke to the part of me that was rabble rarin’ to be roused. Becoming a Bragg fan was like taking a stand, declaring an intention to believe in something meaningful. Sure, it was tepid soup compared to that undertaken by the activists out there holding together the crumbling parts of the world, but there was only so much I was prepared to do in my initial tottering toward enlightenment. Feeble as it may have been in comparison, I was charged up with the notion of buying a record as a revolutionary act.

A couple of years later, Bragg released an EP that further fed my sense that listening to his music helped stoke outrage on the right side of history. The Internationale took its name from the longstanding left-wing anthem, which Bragg performed in a modified version as the EP’s title cut. Following the dalliance with wounded love songs (breakup songs, really), Bragg once again took up the mantle of political commentator with a guitar and rhyming dictionary, indeed doing so with more directness and force than previously. A Bush presidency can inspire that sort of thing. Released at the very beginning of my one summer away from the radio station during my undergraduate years, The Internationale was a valuable tether to who I felt I really was. Putting on the turntable in the basement bedroom where I endured my personal high school era was like reminding myself that I had a true home I’d return to eventually. In my dirtbag, Midwestern hometown, I may very well have been the only soul singing along robustly to socialist-approved musical treatises that summer.

And when I eventually saw Bragg live for the first time, I got to sing-along even a little louder. If only I could find a way to get this song piped into every mall and big box store today, then maybe I’d properly pay back Bragg for the welcoming comfort he brought to me.

Listen or download –> Billy Bragg, “The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions” (Live at The Ritz, 1990)

(Disclaimer: I got this track from the Internet Archive website. It is my understanding that any music shared there, including unofficial live recordings, is done so only with the approval of the artist in question. By extension, I believe it’s also a-okay for me to distribute a track from the same show here. Additionally, Bragg has generally expressed the belief that file-sharing has a useful promotional element to it. Still, I’d rather not share one of his tracks that can be purchased in a way that duly compensates both Mr. Bragg and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store, hence the live recording. Though I feel like I’m on unusually solid ground here, I will gladly remove this track from my little corner of the interweb if asked to do so be any entity or individual with due authority to make such a request.)

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