All aboard: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry's homage to the great American railroad
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry buy a train ticket, climb aboard and on their travels across the US record a homage to the great American railroad, immortalised in countless songs
The hiss of steam; the lonesome whistle; the clatter of steel in the night. Nothing resonates on a psychological level quite like a train. Especially in America, where the railroad remains one of the most enduring metaphors in popular song. This notion plugs directly into Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad, a collaboration between our own Billy Bragg and American singer-songwriter Joe Henry.
“After the idea of the Old West, the railroad comes pretty close in holding a kind of magical position in the American consciousness,” Bragg says. “Nobody ever writes a song that goes: ‘I heard that lonesome car horn…’ There’s something about the train that goes much deeper, emotionally. The train was such a catalyst for change in human existence, particularly in the United States. They allowed people to imagine themselves over the horizon in another place.”
The idea behind Shine A Light was simple. Guitars in hand, Bragg and Henry travelled by train from Chicago to Los Angeles, recording a bunch of classic railroad songs along the way – in waiting rooms, on platforms, at the side of the tracks and occasionally on the train itself. In doing so they hoped to reconnect with the storied culture of American rail travel and the music that helped shape it.
The four-day journey, undertaken in March this year, ate up over 2,700 miles of track and saw the pair take on songs originally made famous by Hank Williams, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers, Glen Campbell and the Carter Family, among others.
“I’m currently writing a book on how the guitar came to the front of British youth culture, which picks up from jazz into skiffle and rock’n’roll,” Bragg explains of his inspiration for the album. “And in the process of doing it I realised just how many train songs there are at the beginnings of British guitar music. People like Lonnie Donegan were basically playing Lead Belly’s repertoire, with a bit of Woody Guthrie thrown in, and that got me started.”