BEEN WORKIN’ ON THE RAILROAD
English troubadour Billy Bragg and US singer Joe Henry’s celebration of the train in American folklore is bringing them to Australia, writes Iain Shedden
The voice echoing around the grand hall of what used to be Union Station in Nashville, Tennessee, is at odds with its environment. Billy Bragg, the bard of a town far, far from here, is explaining in his distinctive English brogue to a crowd of a few hundred Americans just how important the railroad is to US culture. The irony of the situation is not lost on Barking’s favourite son, especially since the beautifully ornate building we are standing in ceased to be operational as a station in 1979 and for the past 30 years has functioned as a luxury hotel, the one that Bragg and the man with him on the makeshift stage, US singer Joe Henry, are staying in. Still, his point is valid.
“The American railroad is still here and it’s still viable,” Bragg says, before joining his close friend Henry for their reading of Rock Island Line, a song with a trail back to the railway workshops of Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1920s. The call and response nature of the tune’s arrangement lends it a spiritual quality, amplified by the ecclesiastic ambience of the venue. It’s appropriate, then, that the two musicians have come here to worship at the altar of rail travel, a mode of transport woven into the tapestry of American folklore.
For the next 45 minutes Bragg and Henry, performing in Nashville as guests of the Americana Music Festival, channel folk songs dating back to the 19th century, some of which made their way into American culture through the voices of Leadbelly, the Singing Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers and bluegrass boss Bill Monroe.
As they work their way through In the Pines, The Midnight Special, Gentle on My Mind and more, the duo’s easy harmony and affection for the material is obvious and contagious, but then they’ve had plenty of time to work the set up into a persuasive ride on the rails.
In March this year Bragg and Henry boarded a train at a functioning Union Station, in Chicago, bound for Los Angeles. With guitars, microphones, basic recording gear and a two-man film crew, the two men set off to make their mark on the musical and cultural history of American railroads, spending four days covering the 4400km of track and stopping along the way in places such as St Louis, Missouri; Fort Worth and El Paso, Texas; and Tucson, Arizona. At each stop, in a waiting room or on a platform or simply at the side of the track, they set up the recording equipment, performed a song and got back on the train.
“For me,” says Henry, “it was about being reminded of how active the railroad still is in our daily lives. It’s invisible to a lot of Americans. It lives in antiquity for a lot of people. I was reawakened to it.”
This reawakening — and for Bragg a voyage of discovery — resulted in Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad, an album released in September that has inspired a world tour, one that will bring the pair to Australia in April next year for a series of shows that includes a performance at Bluesfest in NSW’s Byron Bay at Easter.
The project was Bragg’s idea. It came while he was researching and writing a book on 1950s Britain, a period in music when skiffle formed from the roots of jazz and folk and Scottish singer Lonnie Donegan had a top-10 hit in Britain and the US with Rock Island Line.
“That whole skiffle movement, a lot of it was train songs,” Bragg says after the show, joined by Henry in his hotel suite. “So that led me to think: ‘Why are there so many train songs?’ That got me thinking about American train songs. You don’t get these songs in Britain. You can’t get on a train where I come from and escape the jurisdiction of the law as you can in America. What really got my interest is that the train is a metaphor. Johnny Cash in Folsom Prison Blues is an example. That’s a train song. It’s the train whistle that is reminding him that he is a prisoner. It kills him to know there are people on that train drinking coffee and smoking cigars.”
The railroad, Bragg points out, changed American lives. “That was the way most people first experienced the industrial revolution in America, out in the far west,” he says. “The railroad comes to them. Suddenly they are connected 24/7. Before that it might be a river network, which would flood or freeze. The railroad was an all-weather connection.”
That Bragg has immersed himself in a pivotal part of American culture should come as no surprise to his fans; it’s not for the first time. Twenty years ago, by which time he was firmly established as the most English of folk and pop songwriters, as well as being a political and cultural observer and activist, Bragg was made an offer he couldn’t refuse when folk legend Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora asked him to put music to some of her father’s unrecorded lyrics. The trio of Mermaid Avenue albums with US alt-rockers Wilco that followed in 1998, 2000 and 2012 put the singer in a new context, albeit through the words of an artist whose influence can be heard in much of his catalogue before and since.
Bragg’s enthusiasm for coming here with Henry next year is coloured by those Guthrie excursions. “The reason I’m glad to bring it to Australia is that unlike anywhere else in the world people in Australia really took Mermaid Avenue to their heart,” he says. “They loved the idea of it, so I’m really pleased that we’re doing Shine a Light there.”
Henry, who has been friends with Bragg since the 80s and who produced the Englishman’s most recent studio album, 2013’s Tooth and Nail, says his collaborator’s Englishness, or at least his non-American roots, is a key to the new project’s success.
“I think it would have to have come from someone outside of the US,” Henry says. “We [Americans] are to up to our neck in it, in the scope of it, whereas someone who is sitting a little bit outside, but who has a love for our country and our culture, is seeing it from a remove.
Billy Bragg (right) and Joe Henry spent four days recording songs while travelling thousands of kilometres by train in the US