A former soldier, Billy Bragg gave up the army to dedicate his working life to a songwriting that’s firmly in the tradition of political folk music. To date, this most politically engaged of Britain’s songwriters has addressed workers’ rights, sexual equality and racism with a deft mix of anger, wit and choppy rhythms. England, Half English (the title comes from a book on London’s first West Indian immigrants by Colin MacInnes) is a no-frills contribution to that vexed, at times politically nasty, issue of ‘Englishness’. There’s no such thing as racial purity, the album says. As the title song makes clear, curry is now the national dish, Saint George came from the Lebanon and Britannia is a Roman word. And if you miss the point, the song’s music veers from a raucous singalong (the band isn’t called the Blokes for nothing) to ska and some meltingly lovely Algerian lines.
There’s a varied mood throughout England, Half English. ‘Baby Faroukh’ is a wonderful welcome to a baby born into a new England (there’s a passion in Bragg that echoes William Blake’s) and ‘Take Down the Union Jack’ sloughs off some redundant symbols. But the sombre songs are the most arresting. ‘Distant Shore’, for example, is a delicately delivered piece, sung from the point of view of a refugee. Lu Edmunds’ sax adds an elegiac touch to a song that functions both as a lament for a country lost and a love song to a new land that has yet to find the generosity to accept the gift. Stirring stuff.