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Beethoven and Bragg: An 'Ode to Joy' as reimagined by Billy Bragg

August 28, 2009 |  4:28 pm

Billy Bragg performs during the Road Recovery benefit concert on May 1, 2009 in New York.

Politically charged pop singer Billy Bragg's previous foray into someone else's music found him writing music for the lyrics of several "lost" Woody Guthrie songs. The experiment resulted in two albums of material -- "Mermaid Avenue" and "Mermaid Avenue Vol. II" -- that he recorded with Wilco. This time around, Bragg went in the opposite direction, penning new lyrics to an "Ode to Joy," the triumphant crescendo to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Instantly recognizable from hundreds of commercials, movies and public performances (not to mention the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square), an "Ode to Joy" is based on "An die Freude," a 1786 German poem written by Friedrich Schiller. Like all truly great pieces of music, it had another life as a drinking song.

"There's some evidence that students took Schiller's poem and turned it into a drinking song," Bragg says. "That's how culture works, isn’t it? 'God Bless America' was originally a tunebox hit here in the 1940s. 'God Save the Queen' was sung in taverns before it became our national anthem. What eventually becomes high culture undoubtedly started as low culture."

On Saturday, Bragg will headline an array of local cultural groups -- including jazz singer Dwight Trible of the Pharoah Sanders Quartet, the Dafra Drum Ensemble and bluegrass singer Susie Glaze -- as they perform their interpretations of the Ninth Symphony. Bragg will lead the audience in a singalong of the chorale.

Pausing to chat "while 'e was on 'oliday with the Missus in Meejorca" (Cockney-to-English translation: while he was vacationing with his wife in Majorca, Spain), he touched on universal brotherhood, pan-Europeanism, the potential for a future Billy Bragg choral album and more. Read the full story here.

-- Elina Shatkin

Bragg performs at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. 7 p.m. $55-$100. (310) 430-1954, www.beethovenbragg.com.

Photo: Billy Bragg performs during the Road Recovery benefit concert on May 1 in New York. Credit: Jason DeCrow / AP