There are some artists whose very beings are carved into the very fibre of Glastonbury, as much a Glastonbury institution as the cider bus, novelty flags or ‘DON’T PISS HERE’ signs.
Bragg has become, in some ways, the protector of the leftie spirit of the festival, heavily involved in the Left Field tent, Glastonbury’s home of political debate, once synonymous with the much-loved and late politician Tony Benn, now as much associated with Bragg.
But closing the stage tonight with a cheerfully low-tech performance – just Bragg, his guitar and occasional help from his lead guitarist – the singer-songwriter showed there’s far more to him than barking about politics. Bragg’s show is warm and genial, as likely to take a diversion into his ineptitude at DIY as his feelings on the Tories. And his message, overall, is one of hope.
Three years ago, Bragg solemnly led the memorial to the murdered MP Jo Cox, on the day the Brexit vote was called. He tells a story about walking past a young woman that morning, brushing her teeth at a standpipe. She’d recognised him and stopped him for a chat, telling him that she’d recently come out to her parents, then found out they voted Leave, which made her feel they didn’t understand the kind of country she wanted to live in, “and that changed her relationship with them,” he says.
His message is to empower his crowd – preaching, as ever, to the converted – to help change opinions, and to mend the rifts in families, communities and the country. “We have to hang on to our belief in each other,” Bragg tells the crowd – the real enemy is cynicism, our own cynicism.”
But there are – of course – songs, too. Great ones, at that: a stirring ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’, the proto-Jamie T bop ‘Sexuality’, and a rousing ‘There Is Power In The Union’, which closes the show. And there are songs with fresh, updated lyrics, too. He covers Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ but amends the lyrics: “It’s obvious the climate is changing/But the fool in the White House says no one’s to blame…”, “Martin Luther King is spinning in his grave/To see a bigoted bully taking the stage…”
After that, having decided his audience is “OK with him changing the words to songs,” he runs through a 2019 take on his own 1988 track ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’, with lines including “Britain has grown tired of being Great/So it’s gone back to being Little England,” and a proposal to “take the money from our missiles and spend it on the NHS,” which elicits a huge cheer. “If Brexit goes to no deal, then we will be the first people who voted to put sanctions on themselves,” he quips before it.
So we have politics, songs, anecdotes and, to top it all off, a prediction for the Women’s World Cup: “We’re gonna beat the USA in the semi-final, we’re gonna be knocked out of the final by The Netherlands on penalties – because we’re England,” he says.
In his genial way, that comment sums up Bragg’s standpoint, and sums up the way plenty of people feel about this country we live in – especially at this festival where humanity thrives. He’s disenchanted, disappointed even, but still hopeful. The booming bass notes from nearby clubbing stage The Glade have bled in through Bragg’s set, and it’s hard to compete in that sound-clash when you’re just one man and a guitar, but Bragg makes light of it, joking about trying to match the beat and referring to it frequently. It sums up his approach: make the best of things, accept what’s happening, and turn it into a positive.