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Billy Bragg's New Odes to Woody Guthrie--and Beethoven

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From folk to punk and back again, Billy Bragg has long been one of our most important and popular "political" songwriters. He's even become something of an inheritor of Woody Guthrie's mantle, made plain by his series of albums with Wilco putting Woody's lyrics to new music--with volume three of the Mermaid Avenue series just announced this week (plus a box set and video)

My friend Kerry Candaele went to England to interview Billy for his upcoming film Following the Ninth after learning that Billy had written new lyrics for Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Candaele was there when Billy with the Royal Philharmonic performed it for--the Queen. And Billy met her afterward (photo at left).

We write about this in a full chapter in our new book and e-book Journeys With Beethoven. I've previously posted excerpts from the book relating to Beethoven's political and cultural influence, including the recent Occupy protest of half a million in Madrid. Now here are excerpts from the book on the Bragg Ninth along with audio of his "Ode." Also check out my new Roll Over, Beethoven blog.*

So how did it come to this, Beethoven and Bragg on the same ticket? And as Billy put it, "What am I going to do if Beethoven finds out?" Asked in 2009 by the Southbank Centre to write a new libretto for the Ninth in English, and risking the wrath of the purists, Billy responded with typical élan, true to the sentiments of Schiller's and Beethoven's words but revamped for a new century. It was, in a way, the reverse of his famous and very successful Mermaid Avenue project in putting some of Woody Guthrie unpublished lyrics to music.

Others (most notably the artist, activist and polymath Paul Robeson) had sung various English versions of the "Ode To Joy," but none had, as Billy put it American style, "taken it all the way into the ninth inning," by not just translating the words but rewriting them. When I heard through the internet grapevine that Billy, whose music I had collected since his debut, had tackled the Ninth, I was stunned. First, here was a guy who came out of the punk tradition and he had rewritten the Ninth. Second, how strange and timely, and thus meant to be...

Billy and his wife Juliet and son Jack had just stood in the backdraft of a Ninth concert performed for the first time with a version of his words, and sung by 1500 choristers from across England. He was still floating above ground from the experience when we spoke. As Billy described the event later, "you can look at the Mona Lisa, but you can't really embody the painting, any painting. With the Ninth it's different, you can embody the music by recreating it, by singing it." I knew I had to film a BBB9, and soon enough I was on a plane to London and then down to the Bragg home in Dorset on the south coast of England.

We walked and filmed the hills and beaches just outside his door, where Billy spent time walking his dog and jotting ideas for the finalized lyric he was assigned to complete in five days. And why not, he asked, "I'm a songwriter," a signal that in his mind the distinctions between so-called high and low culture had little meaning when tackling Beethoven's most popular and populist work. Billy knew the Ninth, and had heard it performed live. He picked up the Leonard Bernstein 1989 "Ode To Freedom" version performed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and proceeded to torture Juliet and Jack by becoming a human jukebox, incessantly reworking his new words in the shower and out.

After touring his old neighborhood of Barking, a suburb of London, and visiting his high school where Billy gave a talk about Rock Against Racism (the movement that transformed his life and showed him the power of music to change lives and make political history), we sat for several hours in various places and brought Ludwig van and Billy Bragg into focus...

Two days later I heard the BBB9 live for the first time. The London Philharmonic performed the Beethoven Bragg Ninth, with Her Majesty the Queen in attendance. Billy's mum, even after twenty-five years still unsure about his line of work, let him know that she now viewed his career choice as honorable. She stood with pride and watched her son shake the hand of Queen Elizabeth II. Billy responded to the occasion with an arresting article for the Daily Mail two days later: "How The Queen Charmed the Pants Off Me."

I could see that Billy Bragg charmed the Queen as well. I sat about twenty feet from the Royal Box. I couldn't tell if she was tapping her foot, and she certainly was not rattling her jewelry in time. But I did notice Queen Elizabeth digging into the new libretto, her eyeglasses held steady with one hand as she read Billy's English words to the tune of the "Ode":

What's to be then, O my brother?
Sister, what is in your heart?
Tell me now the hopes you harbour
What's the task, and where to start?
Though now speak ten million voices
Every word is understood:
Furnish every heart with joy and
Banish all hatred for good!

The Queen looked up from her program and nodded in the direction of the chorus. The world, it seemed for a moment, had turned upside down.

Later, Billy reflected on the evening: "Well the performance was something special because obviously, you know, the Queen's at your gig, that doesn't very often happen to me. So that in itself was a bit of a treat, and also I got to invite my mom, which was quite important, you know, for mom and the Queen to be in the same room at the same time to hear a piece of music that bought me a lot of brownie points at home. I mean it was a strange. I mean just out of pure curiosity to have a chance to look the Queen in the eye, it was too good to miss.

"I'm sure she does this all the time, but she came up to me and she gave me this look that sort of said, 'So what the bloody hell are you doing here Braggy? What is all of this? Beethoven, Queen, what are you doing here?' And I sort of began to explain a little bit about the process and how I became the person who wrote this new libretto, and finished off by saying to her, 'I set out to become the new Bob Dylan and I ended up being the new Frederick Schiller.' And she said, 'Oh, that's nice.' "

Much more in our book, Journeys With Beethoven. Blog here.