Marco Werman: Finally today, we're going to hear from one of the artists who took part in the recent Americana Music Festival in Nashville. I am talking about British musician Billy Bragg. Now, it might seem funny to talk to a Brit about Americana but, as Bragg himself told me, it actually makes perfect sense.
Billy Bragg: If Americana is music inspired by American roots music then I think we Brits have, sort of like, first adapters of Americana. In the sense that, in the late 1950's there was a craze of music in the U.K. called Skiffle. A guy named Lonnie Donegan was having hits in the charts in the U.K. with songs that were originally taken from the repertoire of artists such as Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, the American folk tradition, and it took off like lightening among kids as young as 13, 14 and 15. [Lonnie Donegan singing "Tom Dooley"] That was the age of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison when they first started playing guitar, they all played Skiffle. What was special about this music was that there was nothing else like it in the British charts at the time and it was almost underground.
Werman: Skiffle didn't really exist in the U.S., right? So, how did the Brits hear what they were hearing from the U.S. and kind of reinvent it as Skiffle?
Bragg: There was a guy called Ken Colyer who was obsessed with the New Orleans jazz played in the first decades of the twentieth century by people like Bunk Johnson and Kid Ory. In post-war Britain, he wanted to go to New Orleans and find these guys. He realized some of these guys were still playing on Burbon Street. The only way he could think to get there was to join the Merchant Navy. Eventually, he ended up in Mobile, Alabama which is close to New Orleans and he jumped ship; left the ship where he actually met some of Bunk Johnson's band and he sat in with them and he played with them. He wanted to know where this music came from and they kind of sent him out to these old guys who were out in the Bayou who were playing what we would refer to now as Blues, a little bit of Country, a lot of Folk songs, except at the time it hadn't been genred.
Werman: Right. Let's take a pause and listen to Ken Colyer with this new sound. This is a track from 1956; this is Ken Colyer playing the song 'Down Bound Train'. [music] This is 1956; we are talking kind of the vintage of 'Rock around the Clock', Bill Halley and the Comets. Why do you think this American roots music took off with Brits, in Britain, but not in the U.S.?
Bragg: Well, you've got to remember in post-war Britain it was pretty rough. Sweets were rationed; clothing was rationed; post-war austerity. Most of those kids we were talking about - Lennon McCartney had only known the war or the post-war period all their lives. Most of them were born in the early '40s. So, anything coming from America was bright, shiny, new, represented an aspiration for a better life.
Werman: Don't you think, Billy Bragg, that all music comes from somewhere else? I mean, I think of Flamenco, we think Spain but it really came from Rogeston. You say Mambo, we all think Cuba but it really came from Congo.
Bragg: I mean, particularly for a country like Britain which has such a huge maritime history, our culture has always been porous and our great skill has been taking other people's culture and selling it back to them. Look at the Beatles going back and play Motown to teenagers in the United States of America. I think music has to be like that. It has to be capable of breaking down barriers and bringing people together and I think that's the power of music.
Werman: Billy Bragg's latest album is 'Tooth and Nail'; he is currently touring around the U.S. playing, among other things, his own take on Americana. Billy Bragg, thank you so much.
Bragg: Great to speak to you.
Werman: [music] That's John Lennon and his Skiffle group The Quarrymen - pre-Beatles covering Buddy Holly. From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH, I am Marco Werman. We are online around the clock at pri.org and we are back here on the radio, tomorrow.