finding an old friend


    On the way to work yesterday I found an old friend, thanks to Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday.

    Back in the mid-eighties, a couple of the guys in my youth group in Fort Worth showed up with Billy Bragg’s record, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. Bragg is an English folk singer with punk roots who has been a prophetic and progressive voice for twenty-five years. We even got to see him one night at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas (where you can still hear some great music). One of the songs that stuck with me from that album was “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” an amazingly sad song about the power of music to help us name our loneliness:

    With the money from her accident
    She bought herself a mobile home

    So at least she could get some enjoyment

    Out of being alone

    No one could say that she was left up on the shelf

    It’s you and me against the World kid she mumbled to herself

    When the world falls apart some things stay in place
    Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face

    The next record I bought was Back to Basics, which contained a tune called “The Milkman of Human Kindness.”

    If you’re lonely, I will call –
    If you’re poorly, I will send poetry

    I love you
    I am the milkman of human kindness

    I will leave an extra pint

    If you are falling, I’ll put out my hands
    If you feel bitter, I will understand

    I love you
    I am the milkman of human kindness

    I will leave an extra pint

    In the interview, Simon referenced a song I didn’t know called “The Space Race is Over,” which Bragg wrote for his son whose first word besides “Mommy” and “Daddy” was “moon.” For Bragg, the space race was a metaphor for our decreasing ability to dream.

    Now that the space race is over
    It’s been and it’s gone and I’ll never get to the moon

    Because the space race is over

    And I can’t help but feel we’ve all grown up too soon

    Now my dreams have all been shattered
    And my wings are tattered too

    And I can still fly but not half as high

    As once I wanted to

    I was twelve when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. I can remember standing in my yard in Lusaka, Zambia and staring up at the sky on that July night, lost in wonder that people just like me were standing on the moon shining down at me. The possibilities seemed limitless. I never imagined that would be as far as we would go, or that “space travel” would reduce rockets to the equivalent of astronomic eighteen-wheelers. Somewhere we lost sight of the possibilities.

    Billy Bragg has never given up being a dreamer and an activist; he still sings about what’s possible. Much of his music has a strong political edge. He makes no bones about coming from the Left, and he is determined to speak hopefully. When Scott Simon asked him to describe what it meant to him to be a songwriter, Bragg said:

    You have to kind of discern issues that other people might not be talking about that you might have something to say about and write about those things . . . You have to learn to overcome your cynicism and believe in humanity and the ability of people working together to make the world a better place. Cynicism is the enemy of that – not capitalism, not conservativism, but cynicism — and to do this job you have to be able to overcome your own to help people overcome theirs.

    Today at Church Council, one of the folks handed out a sheet from our State Conference office that did not do much for me other than this quote from the late columnist Sydney Harris:

    A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past, but is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.

    We had some friends over for dinner tonight and the talk turned, at least for a while, to politics. The consensus around the table was our elected officials are directed by polls and lobbyists for the big corporations and not by their own integrity or the people they supposedly represent. When it comes to our national leaders, I am prematurely disappointed in the future. I want desperately to be able to trust someone we have elected to office and I’m not sure I think that is possible anymore.

    I hate feeling that way.

    The November election is drawing closer. As it does, our gubernatorial race is descending into the ditches. As much as I would like to see the Republicans lose control of Congress, the Democrats have offered little vision more than “we’re not them.” Dreams are not fueled by who we don’t want to be. Ginger preached this morning on Jesus’ encounter with one we’ve come to know as the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus offered him a chance at love, but the young man’s wealth-induced cynicism caused him to turn away.

    In the late Nineties, Bragg collaborated with Wilco to record some of Woody Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics on a project called Mermaid Avenue. One of the songs is called “Christ for President.”

    Let’s have Christ for President.
    Let us have him for our King.
    Cast your vote for the Carpenter
    that you call the Nazarene.

    The only way we can ever beat
    these crooked politician men

    Is to run the money changers out of the temple

    And put the Carpenter in

    O It’s Jesus Christ for president
    God above our king

    With a job and a pension for young and old

    We will make hallelujah ring

    Every year we waste enough
    to feed the ones who starve

    We build our civilization up

    and we shoot it down with wars

    But with the Carpenter on the seat
    away up in the capital town

    The USA would be on the way
    prosperity bound!

    I don’t know much about the song, other than the lyric I found on Bragg’s web site. I know enough about Woody Guthrie to imagine at least some sense of irony in the words; I know he was not writing an anthem for Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed by any stretch. What Woody saw in Jesus was someone who was not beholden to wealth and power and was determined to meet the needs of the poor and oppressed. He saw hope – a reason to move beyond cynicism. Billy Bragg is living in that legacy and doing it well.

    I’m glad to find him again.



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