Rock History 101: Billy Bragg – "St. Swithin's Day"

“It first dawned on Bragg that he was capable of writing such a song in the early 1980s. ‘I played “St Swithin’s Day” to the woman I was living with at the time, and she just burst into tears,’ he recalls. ‘I thought, “OK, that seems to have done the trick.” Because before that, having been a punk rocker, there were other ideas I was trying to get across, there were other feelings I was trying to get out of people.’”

Billy Bragg to The Guardian, March 2008

Wilco’s contribution to the Mermaid Avenue albums are pretty great. Several tracks remain standards at their most recent concerts, with “Hesitating Beauty”, “California Stars”, and “Airline to Heaven” to name a few. However, someone is often overlooked when discussion arises pertaining to the Woody Guthrie tribute records. It isn’t Natalie Merchant, who plays guest vocalist on a few tracks. It certainly isn’t Woody Guthrie, and it most certainly isn’t Jeff Tweedy.

It is the other fella sharing the marquee. Heck, it’s the protest singer headlining the gig. His name is Billy Bragg. Mr. Love and Justice.

His arrangements of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”, “She Came Along to Me”, and “My Flying Saucer” are just as impactful as the tracks from his Chicago counterparts. Wilco has, deservedly, become a big name in the ever-changing music industry, so naturally their songs have are more familiarity to them. It’s important to recognize why Nora Guthrie selected Bragg above all others to carry on her father’s legacy. What better place to go looking for answers than in “St. Swithin’s Day”?

The song will be broken apart in verse-by-verse in three separate sections, as we try to discover what Bragg was thinking about when he put the song together. History certainly plays a part, so put down your pipe, put on your thinking caps, and get to readin’.

PART I. The Battle of Agincourt

Thinking back now,
I suppose you were just stating your views
What was it all for
For the weather or the Battle of Agincourt
And the times that we all hoped would last
Like a train they have gone by so fast
And though we stood together
At the edge of the platform
We were not moved by them

The battle in question took place in 1415, with Henry V (not the VIII, I am, I am) duking it out with Charles d’Albret in Agincourt, France. It was all an effort to give Henry a little more world domination, though before said battle, the outlook must have been grim. Henry was down to roughly 5,000 British troops at his disposal, was fighting on foreign land, and the French troops outnumbered them five-to-one. As Hudson would say, “Game over, man! Game over!”

Well, Hudson should secure that shit, because he’d be wrong. The French managed give up homecourt advantage by making quite the critical error. Instead of choosing to fight in an enormous field so they could slowly encircle their invaders and crush them, d’Albret and company opted to fight in a narrow field that separated two forests by about 1,000 yards. There isn’t much room for movement when your weapons are swords and axes.

Henry V knew this. In addition to many well-positioned archers, whom took care of many-a French soldier, the depleted English army had much more wiggle room to actually, you know, use their weapons. In the end, whatever French soldiers managed to survive the battle were taken prisoner, and as for d’Albret, well, let’s just say he was killed in battle. Because that’s what happened.

So the argument still exists today, and even works great as a sports analogy: Did the road team win the game, or did the home team lost the game? In the song, Bragg reminisces about a lover who was “just stating her views.” Did they fight about this particular battle? If they did, does this serve as an example of the foolish fights we get into that build up over time. The fights that become our very own version of the Battle of Agincourt: Did she push too hard, or did I push away? Only Billy knows the truth.

PART II. Masturbation

With my own hands
When I make love to your memory
It’s not the same
I miss the thunder
I miss the rain
And the fact that you don’t understand
Casts a shadow over this land
But the sun still shines from behind it.

Millions of people have had their say on masturbation, and there’s only so much room for it on a music website, historical or not (although such sites can be quite self-congratulatory). Kinsey, Freud, the list goes on. But let’s go with what writer Neil Gaiman has to say on the topic. Why? Because Neil Gaiman could be mistaken for a crazy scientist and the quote is funny:

“I wanted to put a reference to masturbation in one of the scripts for The Sandman. It was immediately cut by the editor [Karen Berger]. She told me, ‘There’s no masturbation in the DC Universe.’ To which my reaction was, ‘Well that explains a lot about the DC Universe.’”

The Sandman Companion, 1999

Back to the point at hand (pun not intended), what Bragg sings about it simple. No one, not even yourself, can replace a living, breathing companion. Preferably someone you love and care for.

For more on the history of masturbation, go to Google and type in “masturbation”. Parental advisory is strongly suggested.

PART III. St. Swithin

Thanks all the same
But I just can’t bring myself to answer your letters
It’s not your fault
But your honesty touches me like a fire
The Polaroids that hold us together
Will surely fade away
Like the love that we spoke of forever
On St Swithin’s Day

St. Swithin lived in the 9th century, notably as the bishop of Winchester. He is best known for his acts of kindness, charity, and forming churches throughout the country. It is during the formation of one of these churches where his one recorded “miracle” took place.

An old woman was walking by a worksite when her eggs were accidentally crushed by nearby workers. St. Swithin stopped what he was doing, knelt down and picked them up. By miracle, the eggs were no longer crushed, but in perfect condition. Songs were written, beliefs were struck up soon after, including the holiday Bragg alludes to in the title. The belief goes that if it rains on July 15, St. Swithin’s Day, it will rain for 40 days straight. If it is a clear day, it will remain as such for 40 days, as well. This holiday has found its way into British slang, and it is through this language that Bragg’s song is fully realized.

You see, St. Swithin’s Day is slang for the day that never comes. The song is a tragic one. “Like the love that we spoke of forever on St. Swithin’s Day.” Bragg and his lover probably never opened up enough to one another, if at all. It’s a powerful way to end such an isolated song on electric guitar. Maybe all the other events accounted for, from the weather to the Battle of Agincourt, from the trains to masturbation, never happened at all. But she probably did.

That’s why Billy Bragg is such a warrior poet in the truest sense. He screams just as loudly for love as he does for justice. He is as balanced as it gets, songbook-wise, and it’s tough to find anyone else who can toss in lyrics about British victory, a patron saint, and masturbation in such a straightforward manor. Cheers, Mr. Bragg. Cheers, Mr. Love and Justice.


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