In March this year, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry carried their guitars on to the Texas Eagle train in Chicago bound for Los Angeles.  During the journey, the pair recorded songs while the train stopped to pick up passengers.  With one eye on the train, to make sure that it didn’t pull off without them, songs were recorded in station waiting rooms and trackside platforms.  Four days and 2,728 miles later they disembarked at Union Station at 4.30am and recorded their final song accompanied by the first chirpings of the dawn chorus. 

billybragg-joehenry-900x917

The resulting album Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad captures the atmosphere of these recording locations alongside others including sleeping compartments and room 414 of The Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson recorded 16 of his legendary blues songs.

The songs recorded by Bragg and Henry tell the story of the railroad, the men who built it and the country it connected.  The performances also acknowledge the role these songs played in shaping British rock and roll music.

As Bragg explains: “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 at 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. Travelling on the train and recording 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 also to explore the viability of the railroad as a means of transport in the 21st century.”

By taking them out of the studio and reconnecting them with their natural environments, Bragg and Henry have breathed new life into these songs.  Rock Island Line is sung in the call and response style of the the prison workgang that taught the song to Lead Belly.  In The Pines channels the harmonies of The Louvin Brothers while Hobo’s Lullaby links Bragg directly back to his hero Woody Guthrie.  In laying down these tracks, Bragg and Henry are not only celebrating the railway tracks that enabled America to flourish; they also pay tribute to more recent songwriters such as John Hartford whose Gentle On My Mind  was a big hit for Glenn Campbell and Gordon Lightfoot whose Early Morning Rain gets a unique dawn chorus backing here.

Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad is released on Cooking Vinyl on 23rd September.

John Scott

You must be logged in to leave a reply.