In Tribute: Ed Nimmervoll

15 October 2014 Ed Nimmervoll

In Tribute: Ed Nimmervoll

Ed Nimmervoll

We were saddened to hear that legendary music journalist, Ed Nimmervoll, died last week. Ed has written about countless musicians over the years and The Big Issue has been lucky enough to have his words on our pages more than once. As a tribute to Ed and the great work he did, we wanted to share some of it with you. Here's a piece of his from Ed#417 (2012) about Billy Bragg.



“How would you define a larrikin?” asks Billy Bragg, after he uses the word to describe his great hero, American folk singer Woody Guthrie. Offered an alternative – one that’s perhaps more accurate in the Australian vernacular – Bragg laughs: “Yes, he was that: a shit-stirrer”. The English singer-songwriter is touring Australia this month with a set list comprising Guthrie’s songs in the first part, and his own songs in the second. Bragg has an intense personal connection with the music of Guthrie, having released (with the American band Wilco) two albums – Mermaid Avenue (1998) and Mermaid Avenue Vol II (2000) – setting some of Guthrie’s unpublished lyrics to music. Bragg insists the decision to tour Australia in the year of the folk singer’s centennial is anything but token: “Australia was the only country where Mermaid Avenue sold gold,” he points out. The reason, Bragg theorises, is that Guthrie’s songs – what he was, what he stood for – resonate with Australia’s affinity for larrikins and shit-stirrers.

And of course, there’s no more fitting person to act as contemporary Guthrie advocate than Bragg. The Oxford Dictionary says a larrikin is “a person given to comical or outlandish behaviour”. The comical part is the essence here. Guthrie and Bragg have both written and spoken about the human condition, documenting and articulating social injustices while using humour to get the point across.

If you’ve seen Bragg perform, you’ll know he doesn’t just preach or rail from his soapbox. If there’s a point to be made, he’ll make it without compromise, but he’s also very much an entertainer. He’s incredibly likeable. He’s a larrikin, like Guthrie obviously was. Bragg’s fifth album, released in 1996, was called William Bloke.

That’s how he sees himself. He’s a regular bloke – and he’s a shit-stirrer.

Guthrie, Bragg’s great inspiration, died in 1967. The American folk singer was branded a communist during his heyday. It was the one way his targets could dismiss the messages his songs carried, songs of solace to the downtrodden. Guthrie inspired Bob Dylan and folk music in the 1960s. Bragg came into the picture across the Atlantic a decade later, now labelled the ‘punk’ years, when a generation of English youth were trying to make their voices heard. Bragg cross-pollinated folk and punk. He was labelled a ‘red’ and he carried the label with pride.

Fast forward to 1992. After watching Bragg deliver a spirited Guthrie cover at a Central Park tribute concert, Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, contacted Bragg – as well as American alt-country group Wilco – and opened the archive of her father’s unfinished songs. Nora wanted to challenge people’s perception of who Guthrie was and Bragg was an inspired choice. Giving those unfinished songs to Springsteen or Dylan, the all-too obvious Guthrie descendents, wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.

The result of Nora’s invitation to delve into her father’s archive was the two Mermaid albums named after the family’s former street address.

“The real work had already been done in the lyrics,” says Bragg. “The imagery, the depth of colour in the lyrics was already there. All we had to do was come up with some suitable chords that made those lyrics stand out. We were just picture-framers.”

Since those recordings took place, Bragg has become family. On the anniversary of Guthrie’s actual birthday earlier this year, he and singer-songwriter Steve Earle joined the Guthries – Nora, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren – at the site of 3520 Mermaid Avenue in New York’s Coney Island. “It’s now a giant senior citizens home,” Bragg explains. “After family hugs and photos, everyone walked down the cracked pavement of 36th Street to the beach…where his ashes were scattered. It was his favourite spot.”

Since the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as UK prime minister, it’s been said that Bragg has lost the motive for his political activism. But while the political scene has changed, Bragg still finds plenty to talk and write about. And time and technology have changed the way he reaches his audience.

“During the miners’ strike in England [1984–1985], I wrote a song called ‘Between the Wars’. By the time I’d recorded it, got [it] into the factory, got it into the shops – the strike had ended,” he recounts. “Last year, when I wrote ‘Never Buy the Sun’, I wrote it on a Friday, I performed it for the first time on the Saturday and that night, after the show, some guy filmed me singing it in the dressing room. I went to bed just after I’d posted it on YouTube, and when I woke up in the morning it had had 1500 hits.”

Activism isn’t all there is to Bragg. Never has been. He writes just as good a love song as he does a finger-pointing song.

“I write about life,” Bragg says. He writes about his life and our lives. Guthrie was the same. The Mermaid Avenue songs are not museum pieces. Bragg chose to give life to songs that are as true today as they were when Guthrie wrote those lyrics. He was a ‘bloke’, too.

by Ed Nimmervoll