In this year of Brexit and the resulting rise in racist attacks, Labour in turmoil, the refugee crisis and the terrifying prospect of a Trump US presidency, you might expect The Bard of Barking to release an album of his usual political engagement, social commentary, and firebrand story songs.
But, no, this is a much more reflective project, a look back at early 20th century American music and how that strange mix of folk, blues and country had an intrinsic relationship with the railroad. Today we might call these songs ‘Americana’ but back then it was an expression of what music writer Greil Marcus calls The Old Weird America.
Many of the tunes, some traditional, were recorded and popularised by legendary figures such as Lead Belly, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. The set does come slightly more up-to-date, also featuring 60s singer-songwriter material from Gordon Lightfoot and John Hartford.
Without wishing to revive the more excessive rules of Ewan McColl’s Critic’s Group, some might question the authenticity of Essex man Bragg singing these old-time American songs. They are not just written by Americans, but they are about the American experience, with distinctive dialects and intonation intrinsic in the lyrics and tunes.
But what Billy lacks in terms of ‘birthright’ to sing these songs, he more than makes up for in conviction. Bragg is clearly captivated by them and inhabits the characters and landscape as well he would an English working song or a composition of his own. He even contributes a brief (distinctly un-ironic) yodle to conclude Waiting for a Train.
But these songs play an important part in the development of not just American Rock’n’Roll but also in British music through the late 50s Skiffle craze. It’s an odd thing to look back on now because it burned brightly then basically died out within a couple of years, but Skiffle proved a jumping-on point for so many diverse British music artists. Members of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Fairport Convention, Dr Feelgood and future folk troubadours such as Martin Carthy all picked up guitars and fashioned homemade instruments inspired by Lonnie Donegan’s seminal recordings, particularly Rock Island Line (one of the songs chosen for this album).
Joining Bragg on this transatlantic journey is Joe Henry, the respected American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and producer. And it is definitely an equal partnership of two musicians and singers. Their twanging guitars intertwining and their very different vocal ranges combining in sweet harmony.
This is very much a project album with the conceit (and challenge) that the field-recorded songs are all taped in the course of a 65-hour journey across the US on the Texas Eagle railroad service. Billy and Joe stopped to perform in waiting rooms and at the track side in St Louis, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine TX, El Paso and Tucson.
These beautiful, spontaneous songs are punctuated by the ambient hubbub of working train stations with the occasional announcement and bursts of applause from fellow travellers. While never overdone, these interludes add greatly to the atmosphere and draw the listener into the journey of the songs. You feel welcomed into their great travelling enterprise, while secretly wishing you’d actually been invited along for the ride.
Of course, these songs aren’t really about trains and train stations. The locomotive is a constantly shifting metaphor here, sometimes by presence and sometimes through absence. The train variously symbolises loss, redemption, escape, progress, longing, death and the journey to the world beyond. Trains, stations and railroad life play a crucial role in the American journey, defining the landscape, offering opportunities, bringing people together and taking others away.
This is a stripped back affair, mostly two voices, guitars and one brief burst of harmonica – anything you could pack up in a trunk and take along 2,728 miles of track. While it does give you an insight into American culture (it certainly encouraged me to hunt out the original recordings), it’s not a history lesson or an academic exercise. It’s too warm and welcoming for that, and the well chosen, and performed songs stand up on their own, without the baggage of the circumstances of the recordings.
Don’t expect wistful nostalgia, Joe and Billy perform these robust songs because they love them and that passion is persuasive. If you don’t already, you’ll end up loving them too. And it’s a journey well worth taking, particularly alongside these two travelling companions.
Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad is released on 23 September via Cooking Vinyl
Order it via Amazon
Don’t miss our recent interview with Billy Bragg:
“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 isof the railroad … that’s got the sounds of the railroad on there.”