Billy Bragg, the fearless folk singer, author, and activist, came to Cambridge the weekend of October 3rd – October 5th to play a three night residency at The Sinclair in Harvard Square. Each night he performed a different focal point of his career from a mélange of career spanning favorites on Thursday, his first three albums on Friday, and a retrospective of his saddest songs on Saturday. Bragg’s career spanning 35 years has been a triumph of the human condition and a testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
Each of the three nights reached a sold out capacity almost immediately when the tickets became available. Even those who had a change of plans and were looking to unload their tickets were only looking for the face value from when they were purchased. This speaks a lot to Billy Bragg’s message of fairness, equality, and how that translates to his fans; no vultures, no gougers, and certainly no scabs need apply. I was fortunate enough to have tickets for the Friday show and it did not disappoint. I was doubly fortunate as I had been marching on a picket line earlier that day.
— Nicholas Panagakos (@NickyPanic) October 4, 2019
I joined the few hundred people that had gathered to support the striking workers at the Battery Wharf hotel on the edge of the North End in Boston. The contract had been up for renegotiation in the early months of 2017 and the company had refused to budge at the negotiating table with Unite Here! local 26. Unite Here! is an international union in the US and Canada which represents roughly 250,000 workers. Local 26 are the union representatives for hotel and hospitality workers in Boston and Rhode Island and they represent over 10,000 employees. After the final attempts for negotiations were at an impasse between the company and the union, the employees voted a majority and agreed to a strike. That was over a month ago now, and the momentum is building for the workers of the Battery Wharf hotel.
There is still a long fight ahead, but the energy at the rally was very high. With people from across the city, some being union members, some unaffiliated, all marching, chanting, holding signs and dancing with each other, there was not a sad face in the crowd. There were plenty of angry faces, but it was not from a place of fear. When a company claims to look out for your best interest, claims that you should work together as a family, and then refuses you the right to basic healthcare and a living wage, yeah, I’d be pissed, too. This is only a brief glimpse into the reality that is being spread through the guise of hospitality. Without union representation it is all too easy for a company to instate whatever rules they want. This often comes with a complete disregard to an employee’s safety, dignity, health, and income. The money goes up the ladder and the shit falls down. Smiling for the sake of tears.
As I’m walking the picket line, sign in hand and shouting to capacity, a friend of mine points to a fella on the edge of the line. He’s talking to workers and asks genuine questions, administering hugs, handshakes, and words of encouragement. It’s Billy Bragg. My instinct is to book it over from where I am, but discipline takes control and I keep my place in line. I’ll catch him on the next loop. Coming around again my friend and I stop to chat with Billy Bragg and thank him for coming to the picket line. He smiled ear to ear and says something along the lines of wouldn’t miss it. We talked for a bit about capitalist, the fight of the working class, and the inherent corporate greed that plagues America. He’s inherently optimistic, though. With high hopes for the future and the newest generation to come, he had a look on his face that translated to, “Just you wait and see”.
The picket line turned into a march where we all took to Hanover Street and blocked traffic as we made our way to that little Paul Revere Park. There was a small stage set up where Union representatives, city politicians, and workers all talked about their love and support for the workers on strike. There were heartbreaking stories of abuse and disrespect, a few jokes at the company’s expense, and loud cheers as Billy Bragg took to the stage. He sang Which Side Are You On, There Is Power in a Union, and other traditional labor favorites. It was a brief set because he still had to sound check at The Sinclair and it was getting to be that time.
That night at the show I saw a lot people from the picket line. It felt like we were all in on something that should not be a secret. Billy took care of that, though. He was brilliantly blasting through songs from his first three albums. Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy, Brewing up with Billy Bragg, and Talking to the Taxman about Poetry. He talked about the strike extensively throughout his set. This was met with cheers of support from the audience and lead to further explanations of his latest takes on politics, sociology, and the importance for kindness. These are expanded upon in his newest book, The Three Dimensions of Freedom. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but it’s coming in the mail. I have a feeling that it will not disappoint.
The show was an inspiration for what people can be capable of with a little courage and truth. Filled with stories of his first interactions with Jon Peele, his first American tours, and his initial distrust of New York City, the whole evening became increasingly personal as it wore on. This was all without pretense. “I’m not a musician. I’m a guitar player. Musicians play the piano.” he quipped from the stage to laughter and a showing that he speaks to his own truth. He’s one of the few performers who can sell out three nights in a row and remain modest. He was confident, sure, but it was a barroom kind of confidence. He could have just finished his shift on the dockyard loading shipments to go overseas and we wouldn’t know the difference.
I talked to him again briefly after the show and he was wearing a Local 26 shirt while he met with fans. After walking a good length of time on a picket line and playing over 2 hours of music, yeah, he looked a bit tired. This did not stop him from talking to every single person that lingered after the show. And he had to do it all again the next day. Why? Because this is who he is. He is the poet. The dreamer. The activist. The guitar player. The listener. The Writer. The Fighter.
If you already know Billy Bragg, then you know what I mean. If you don’t know Billy Bragg, then I would suggest starting with Talking to the Taxman about Poetry. It’s my personal favorite and Levi Stubbs Tears is a jammer. Incidentally, the strike is still on at the Battery Wharf hotel every day from 7am-7pm. They’ll be on strike until they win. Why not come down and raise a fuss? They’d love to see you.
One day longer, one day stronger.
Nicholas Panagakos is a writer based out of Cambridge, MA. He has published one book of poems and illustrations titled Laughter You See and plays in bands regularly. Soon to open a home for adult orphans. Buy him a drink.
Anti-Cop. Anti-ICE. Pro-Union.