Billy Bragg’s American obsession

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry join the Celtic Connections line up next week.

Like many a British musician before him, Billy Bragg, bard of Barking, singer songwriter, political activist, and musical historian has made no secret of his obsession with the songs and the mythology of the Americas, not least those of his artistic and philosophical forebear Woody Guthrie. With his friend and collaborator, US singer songwriter Joe Henry, he has made an album that focuses on the transformative part the railroad played in disseminating the songs that gave birth to the rock’n’roll era.

‘Shine A Light – Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad’ by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, was released September 23 last year. It’s a collection of railway-themed classic songs recorded in the course of a 65-hour journey across the US on the Texas Eagle railroad service. Featuring thirteen songs originally recorded by legendary singers such as Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Glen Campbell and more, the album is an atmospheric travelogue, a gripping lesson in musicology, but most importantly it is a beautifully recorded collection of wonderful tunes.

It was in March 2016 that Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, guitars in hand, boarded a Los Angeles-bound train at Chicago’s Union Station. Winding along 2,728 miles of track, the pair recorded songs while the train paused to pick up passengers. In waiting rooms and at the track side in St Louis, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine TX, El Paso and Tucson they set up their recording equipment, and performed classic railroad songs while keeping half an eye on the train and jumping back on board just before pulling out for the next town. After four days crossing the country, they pulled into Los Angeles at 4:30am, recording their final song in Union Station accompanied by the first chirpings of the dawn chorus.

The resulting album features the perfectly matched voices of Bragg and Henry and captures the varied atmospheres of the environments in which they recorded—from the close proximity of soft-furnished sleeping cars to the cathedral-like ambience of historic railway stations.

Billy said: “Railroad songs provided the bedrock of American popular music, from Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, to Lead Belly, whose repertoire provided several of the songs for this project.

“In this country, Lonnie Donegan’s 1956 hit ‘Rock Island Line’ sparked the skiffle craze, inspiring a generation of British teens to pick up guitars and form the groups that invaded America in the 60s, from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin.

“Growing up in the UK, I’d always been aware of this tradition but when I travelled to the US, I was surprised to find how few people look to the railroad as a means of transport. With this project, we wanted to explore the transformative power that the coming of the railroad had on the lives of ordinary people by taking these songs back to the places that inspired their creation.

“Traveling on the train and recording the songs as we went allowed us to both visit places that were important 125 years ago when the lines were laid, but to also explore the viability of the railroad as a means of transport in the 21st century.”

Joe added: “The emergence of the railroad in America boasted of our might and sprawling enormity, yet signaled a deep desire for close community, connectivity. The songs that grew out of and alongside this innovation remain to tell this story of collective national character.”

The duo will tour the UK together later this year, performing songs from ‘Shine A Light’ and more with a date in Glasgow on January 26 at the Old Fruitmarket as part of the Celtic Connections Festival.

For tickets, visit http://shinealight-joehenry.billybragg.co.uk/.

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