A British Socialist and Me

by Casey Lynn

From the writer: I have to credit my mother for the inspiration behind this essay. Had it not been for her overtly socialist choice of music, I might not have been able to write such a personal work. My father has also significantly influenced my writing; we spent most of my college visitations passing devious notes back and forth to one another once the tour guide lost our interest.

From the teacher, Marjorie Ledden: Ever hear of Billy Bragg? I didn’t think so. Neither had I until Casey wrote about his lyrics to fulfill a Writing Studio I assignment asking students to analyze an artifact. When Casey was two, her Care Bear tapes were replaced with the tapes of Billy Bragg, a British Socialist songwriter. Can you predict the result? I’ll bet not. Read on to learn the answer to the question Casey poses: "What part does music play in children’s lives?"

From the editor, Jessica Cumberbatch: Reading this piece evoked such a deep sense of nostalgia for me from beginning to end. Being a child of the eighties and owing so much of my personal existence to the music that captured every moment and memory of growing up, was what drew me to this narrative. The writer used parallel ideas of music, personal growth, and social change, bringing them full circle to give the reader a piece of themselves through the experiences of a peer.

  Maro, while packing to come to America, took special care with his music selection. The suitcase was already bursting, but he found one empty spot, in the upper left-hand corner, to stuff some tapes. It was 1985, I was two, and the Care Bears sang my favorite tunes.

  By 1989, Maro’s tapes had found themselves mingled into my mother’s already expansive CD collection. He had gone back to Italy, but the tapes had not. My mom’s favorite one had a worn case, and boasted the title "Billy Bragg, Back to Basics." The Care Bears were out, and Billy Bragg was in.

  What part does music play in children’s lives? Had my mom let me continue to listen to my Rainbow Bright tapes, would I have turned out differently? Certainly I would have gotten less funny looks on the playground. I had a habit of singing out and singing loud whichever song my mom had been playing on the car ride to school. On this particular day, it was a little tune called "To Have and to Have Not":
  "Up in the morning, go out to school, mother says there will be no work next year. Qualification was the golden rule, but now it’s just a piece of paper. Just because you’re better than me, doesn’t mean I’m lazy Just because you’re going forwards, doesn’t mean I’m going backwards."

  Needless to say, as long as I sang ballads about the plight of the English worker, there was no place for me at the "cool kids" jungle gym. Yet when I jumped into my mom’s black Acura at five o’clock everyday, I was a changed child. I was my mother’s equal, a little voice to be reckoned with. She would sing her favorite song, and I would provide the encore. This call and response would go on until we rounded the corner of our tiny development. I would see my peers—little street urchins whose lives revolved around the appearance of the ice cream man—and feel no desire to play outside. By raising me on her music, my mom had inadvertently lessened my desire to associate with children my own age.

  During this time, I often wondered what Billy Bragg would think if he knew one of his biggest fans was 8 years old. Certainly American youths were not Bragg’s target audience. Born in 1957, in Barking, Essex, Billy Bragg began singing his "Performance Poetry" in 1981. Bragg had left the army and picked up a guitar. Journalist Steven Wells (News Musical Express), described Bragg’s stage appearance:
  "Then, onstage, is this cockney geezer with a huge nose. He moved like a Thunderbirds puppet and talked in short, clipped, army-like sentences, and he just thrashed his guitar and sang his heart out."

  In 1984, Bragg began playing on behalf of the miners who were striking all over England. In the years when the Conservative Party ran England, Billy Bragg had plenty to sing about. Only about three million people were officially employed at the time, and people’s rights were placed below the agenda of the Government. On Bragg’s involvement, journalist Ian Peddie wrote, "It required no special effort to become politicized in an era when the Conservatives justified cuts in school meals on the basis that there would be no school meals at all if Britain failed to maintain a huge arsenal of Cruise missiles." Billy Bragg became the voice of the worker.

  Back in America, I was getting ready to enter middle school. While Bragg was singing about the plight of the worker, I was trying to find where I fit in among my peers. Luckily for me, my mom allowed my to listen to other music besides that of a British Socialist. I found my niche among a group of wild prepubescent girls because I had learned not to utter one lyric unless it had been played on the top 40 station. Yet when we discussed British politics, I always knew what the teacher was talking about. I raised my hand to answer any question about strikes or labor unions or parties and picket lines. I had to fight the urge to blurt out, "This is just like Billy Bragg’s song ‘Between the Wars,’ where he discusses how the coal miners placed their faith in a government system that let them down in the years after World War Two!" Actually, with the eyes of my peers on me, it was quite easy to fight that urge. Though I was gaining friends, I was severing a piece of the maternal connection. Trips to the record store began to end in my mother’s disappointment rather than pride. She was used to displaying me on her arm as we waltzed up and down the aisles of CDs, her little girl with big taste in music. On tiptoe, I would place the new CD in front of the cashier. Usually a seventeen-year-old rebel with a love for 80’s punk, the guy who rang us up was always astonished when he peered over the counter to find it was a tiny Catholic schoolgirl making the purchase. Yet this new need to listen to what was "in" and "acceptable" created a gap between who I wanted to be and who my mother knew I was. So as I ripped the sticky plastic off of the newest radio success, she tried to comprehend what had happened to her little comrade.

  While I was denying my musical taste, Bragg was still performing. His records were banned in South Africa, and his tours were spanning the globe. The year was 1997 and Tony Blair’s "New Labour" party had ousted Thatcher’s. Billy Bragg released a new album, William Bloke. Many years had passed since he left the army to strum on his guitar. He had a son now, and the new album contained more love ballads than socialist banter. Yet he still supported the worker, and at the AFL-CIO conference, Bragg was the headliner.

  I replaced Maro’s tape with a CD when I was in 9th grade. I kept the tape with its beat-up cover and torn paper, but a tape was of no use to me anymore. For the first time, I was going to let a peer in on my favorite musician. Gone were my bubble-gum records by artists with no talent. Over time I had developed my own identity, become my own person. I could listen to my music and be proud. I went to the CD store down the road from me. To my dismay they had never even heard of Billy Bragg. "You might wanna try Barnes and Noble, hon". Try I did, and within a few hours, I was holding a brand new copy of Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime. I went to Allie Reitz’s sleepover party with a pillow, a sleeping bag and a CD that would reveal to all, what kind of music I really liked. But I choked. While Bragg was onstage somewhere singing "There is power in a Union," a girl in Baltimore could not even find the power to play his music. The morning after, I was the last one to be picked up. We were sitting on Allie’s back porch, with a CD player between us. It was just Allie and I. Timidly, I asked her if she wanted to hear some Billy Bragg. She said yes.

  Three years later we stood out front of the Recher Theater. It was one hour before the show was to start. There were five of us. My mom and I stood chatting, while my three friends rubbed together to stay warm. Lauren mumbled something about not even really liking the music and frostbite and dressing for the cold. Allie kept chanting, "Oh my God, he’s here!" And poor Stu was just along for the ride. The doors finally opened, and my mom checked to make sure she had the old tape in her hand. We pushed to the front, an easy feat since we were the first ones there. My friends went to get some sodas, but I refused to move. The year was 2000. The opening act was a local folk singer that sang about macaroni and cheese and the sorrow he felt while walking by a homeless man on Eastern Avenue.

  Finally Mr. Macaroni left the stage, making way for the person I had come to see. Billy Bragg came on the stage. He spoke about the Olympics, and how he did the math on the plane ride over, and, according to income vs. population vs. medals, Cuba was actually the country that won. The music began. Allie and I belted our hearts out. Not since the elementary school playground had I sang "To Have and to Have Not" with such conviction. Billy Bragg played for almost three hours. At the end of the concert, my mom handed Billy Bragg the tape, and he signed it: "Much love to Mary Rae and Casey, Billy Bragg."

  Had my mom let me listen to my Rainbow Bright tapes, I would not have turned out the same. I never would have found common ground with Allie, never would have been able to run down the halls of my high school singing "Help Save the Youth of America." Had The Care Bears remained my favorite band, feigning interest in top 40 tunes would have been easy. I would never have questioned the history teacher when he belittled the Union’s struggle. I would never have researched St. Swithin’s Day, or The Falkland Wars. And I certainly never could have had my Modern European class singing, in unison:
  "There is power in the factory, power in the land, power in the hand of the worker. But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand. There is power in a Union. The Union forever, defending our rights. Down with the blacklist, the workers unite."

  Children listen more closely to what is put into their ears than adults could ever realize.
While coming to Syracuse, I took special care with my music selection. The suitcase was already bursting, but I found one empty spot, in the upper left-hand corner, to stuff some CDs. It was 2001, I was eighteen, and Billy Bragg sang my favorite tunes.

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