How Time Changes A Song: Billy Bragg's "A New England"

In 1983, Billy Bragg released "A New England," a young man's song that began with the lyrics:

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song
I'm twenty-two now, but I won't be for long
People ask me, "When will you grow up to be a man?"
But all the girls I loved in school are already pushing prams...

Bragg's original rendition had him singing solo, backed only by an electric guitar -- a pretty unusual arrangement in any era, but decidedly odd in the musical climate of the early 80's. The studio version was dripping with reverb, sounding a bit like Bragg was performing in a bathroom. Here's a live performance from the 80's (when Bragg was in his mid-twenties) showing the song's early, punky sound:

Billy Bragg - A New England

Read how the song changed over the next twenty-five years after the jump.

In 1985, Kirsty MacColl released her cover of the song and reached #7 on the UK charts. Bragg had slightly rewritten the lyrics for her, changing the narrator's perspective to be female and adding a verse. MacColl's version was a hit, but was decidedly cheesy:

By 1988, Bragg was in his 30's and the song was very well-known. The song had become a sing-along:

In a 2007 show (at age 49) in Berlin, Bragg performed the song as a jokey sing-along, frequently stopping and chatting with the audience. Like in many modern performances, he also included the extra Kirty MacColl verse, in memory of her death in 2000.

At 2008's NME Awards, Bragg and Kate Nash performed a medley of Nash's "Foundation" and Bragg's "A New England" with Bragg now 50 years old and Nash aged 21. Bragg's guitar is now acoustic, and there's a full band in evidence, but the song's "I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song" introduction is still intact:

I still think I prefer the original (widely available on the Bragg compilation "Back to Basics"), but he sure has kept things moving over twenty-five years playing that song. It's nice to see that the song's original lyric and perspective still make sense decades after their debut. All hail Billy Bragg!

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

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Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


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