Born in a working class suburb of London, Bragg started his career playing local pubs with the punk rock act Riff Raff. After a brief military stint in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, Bragg attended the Rock Against Racism Festival, headlined by The Clash, in 1978 and came away convinced that politically charged music could be his path out of a blue collar life. Bragg reentered music as a solo performer.
A chance experience with famous deejay John Peel resulted in Peel playing a song from Bragg’s first album, Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy. Soon after, Bragg signed a contract with Virgin Records and Bragg followed with 1984’s Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, an album of political songs that would result in Bragg becoming a leading figure in the 80s anti-folk movement appearing at leftist rallies, strikes and benefits. Bragg also helped form the Red Wedge, a socialist musicians’ collective that also featured Paul Weller.
While Bragg’s early releases were sparse solo affairs, the 1986 release, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, expanded the musical palette with the additional of occasional horn and piano parts, and broke into the Top 10 on the UK charts. 1988’s Workers Playtime continued in this direction and Bragg now found success recording and touring with a full backup band.
In the late 1990s, Bragg was contacted by Nora Guthrie, the daughter of American folk music legend Woody Guthrie, and asked to collaborate with the band Wilco in setting some of Woody Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics to new music. The resulting albums, Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, won praise from critics and charted in both Britain and the United States.
Bragg’s socialist political views are in full force on 2002’s England, Half-English release and his 2006 book The Progressive Patriot. While Bragg’s views have brought pushback, it has not altered his participation in political demonstrations and benefit concerts worldwide. Bragg also pursues charity work including a prison education project called Jail Guitar Doors which aims to supply inmates with guitars to aid in their rehabilitation. Bragg is also a spokesman for a recording-artist rights group called the Featured Artists Coalition.