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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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