Gearing up to the release of his new album, Shine A Light, Billy Bragg heads out for a select number of live shows. Among them are a sell-out London gig (17 Aug 2016, St Pancras Old Church) and headline slots at the opening night of Oxfordshire’s Towersey Festival (26 Aug) and Moseley Folk Festival (2 Sep).
“The great thing about folk audiences is that they don’t mind if you get old, they actively encourage you to grow old. And I’m cool with that. If in ten years’ time I’m still doing this – God willing – and I look like Burl Ives, they’ll still have me.
“But if Morrissey looks like Burl Ives, there’s no way they’re going to have him at Bonnaroo,” Bragg chuckles, referencing the massive, uber cool Tennessee music festival.
“I feel blessed to be considered to be part of the folk scene, ‘cos I’m not of it, if you know what I mean,” he adds.
Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad sees Bragg re-partner with producer and musician Joe Henry, who previously contributed to Bragg’s 2013 album, Tooth And Nail.
The album’s starting point was, for Billy, Lonnie Donegan’s iconic 1955 take on Lead Belly’s rail-themed Rock Island Line – the track which not only started a British skiffle boom, but kick-started Brit’ rock’n’roll.
Listening to early country and blues, Billy said: “I started to think, why are there so many train songs? And there are a lot, a lot of train songs, compared to aeroplane songs and car songs. I came to realise that the railway, and the coming of the railway, was such a paradigm shift in human existence.”
The arrival of the train in the US opened up the vast tracts of the country which were previously out-of-reach, allowing towns and cities to spring up away from the coasts and rivers. The rail network also allowed for the transportation of both people and seemingly exotic goods and technology at speed across thousands of miles. It was little short of a revolution that reshaped nations.
“What came after [the trains] – the automobile and aeroplane – only really enhanced that, it wasn’t the same sort of sudden change in our existence that the railways created. I think that’s why there are so many songs about it.
“Car songs and plane songs tend to be about going on a plane and being in a car, but railway songs can be about death, parting …,” he continues. “You think about Folsom Prison Blues: the train in that is just a whistle, evoking something in Johnny Cash’s mind. You never hear someone sing ‘when I heard that lonesome car horn blow…’, do you? You know what I mean? It got me thinking about all that … all those things.”
Another key influence on Shine A Light’s development came two years ago with a call from photographic foundation, Aperture.
“In 2014 I got invited to take part in a photo-documentary to commemorate a guy named Robert Frank. He’s a 90-year-old now, a Swiss-American photographer who knocked around with Kerouac. And they wanted to send me and this American photographer, Alec Soth, out on the road together to do something. They put me in touch with him and he said, ‘is there anywhere in America you’ve ever wanted to go where you’ve never been?’ I’ve been to a lot of places in America, but I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve always wanted to go to Rock Island, where the Rock Island Line comes from.’ He said, ‘where the f*** is that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, let’s go find it…’. So that’s what we did. I followed the railroad – it’s not there anymore, so followed the line down to Arkansas where the song was originally recorded in a prison in 1934 by John Lomax assisted by Lead Belly. And while we were on that trip I discovered that west of the Mississippi, the trains going into Little Rock Arkansas … there’s only one passenger train a day, and it goes from Chicago to Los Angeles – just one.
“I thought to myself, it’s crazy … I live in a tiny place in Dorset and there’s two trains an hour to London, it’s crazy! You know?” he exclaims.
“So I got this idea to try and sort of get to grips with the railroad – not by writing about it but by being physically travelling on it, being part of it … not making an album that is about the railroad, but making an album that is of the railroad … that’s got the sounds of the railroad on there.”
The ensuing project saw Bragg and Joe Henry embark on a 2,728-mile journey from Chicago to Los Angeles in March 2016 with a set-list of railroad tunes. The plan was to leap out at various stops and record a song live – on the platform, in waiting rooms, in station atriums, as passengers boarded – and then jump back on the train as the whistle blew.
“There were some stops where you’d only stop for five minutes, but in the larger cities, out of Chicago, they’re longer. The first big stop was St Louis after that big stops are in Little Rock – although that was in the middle of the night so we didn’t get to do anything, which was a shame as that’s where the original idea came from – Fort Worth, San Antonio, these kind of places.
“Because crews have to get on and off, they only have eight-hour shifts, you have to change the complete crew and all the catering’s got to be got on and people want a fag break. So often we would have 30 minutes to work with. As long as we kept an eye on the train, and let them know we were getting back on again, they were very good … the Amtrak staff, they looked out for us I have to say.”
No cases of frantically running down the platform as train doors slowly close … ?
“No near misses. We were pretty good. There were a few places where we couldn’t get into the railway station because it was just too far away from the platform. Like at St Louis, where we wouldn’t have been able to see the train. We just had to do it by the side of the train, so you can hear people getting on and off and you can hear a guy saying ‘all aboard’ and listing all the places the train is going, which is pretty cool.”
The selection of songs include Rock Island Line, Jean Ritchie’s The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore (recorded by Johnny Cash et al), Hank Williams’ Lonesome Whistle, Jimmie Rodgers’ Waiting For A Train, and a couple from more contemporary artists, Glen Campbell and Gordon Lightfoot.
“Joe and I were riding on a train one night, playing a couple of songs on the guitar, and we realised that, when he started playing Gentle On My Mind, by Glen Campbell, it’s sung from the perspective of a hobo – a tramp living in a hobo jungle in a railyard. ‘I dip my cup of soup from a gurgling, cracking cauldron in some train yard…’ That’s how the last verse begins. We suddenly realised that was a railroad song too,” Billy explains.
“We also wanted something that talked about how things have changed, that the railroad was no longer the life blood of the country it once was, and there’s a song by Gordon Lightfoot called Early Morning Rain. It’s about a guy sitting outside of a fence of an airport watching a 707 take off, going back to where he lives, and he can’t get on it, and the last lines of that say ‘You can’t jump a big jet plane like you can an old freight train.’ We thought that fitted as well.”
Despite the fact that the train is no longer considered the marvel it once was, Billy believes the themes of the songs remain vital.
“People travel for lots of different reasons: some people travel for fun, some travel for work, but some people just travel to get away to a different life, ‘cos they can’t stand the life they’ve got. And that hasn’t changed. It’s just the Americans don’t think about getting on a train anymore. They don’t have that long contemplative [journey].
“There’s something very physical about a train that you don’t really get with a car. You kind of get it in an aeroplane but you’re too busy denying where you are in an aeroplane, trying not to think, ‘I’m six miles above the ground here in this little tube and the walls are probably six inches thick.’ But whereas on a train you’re really seeing the world as people saw it 150 years ago when they laid the tracks. The train goes to places that were important a long time ago – but not necessarily important now.”
– Billy Bragg appears at Towersey Festival on Friday 26 August 2016 with Kate Rusby, Steve Tilston and Jez Lowe, Lynched, Rusty Shackle and Topette, and continues until Monday 29 August with appearances from The Wonder Stuff, The Young’uns, 9Bach, Edward II, Tom Robinson, Midge Ure, Kerr and Fagan, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, Rory McLeod, and more.
– Moseley Folk Festival runs from Friday 2 to Sunday 4 September 2016 in Birmingham.
– The Shine A Light UK tour with Joe Henry runs from 7-19 November 2016. Details: shinealight-joehenry.billybragg.co.uk
Shine A Light is released 23 September via Cooking Vinyl