British folk icon Billy Bragg and Americana stalwart Joe Henry teamed up this past year to “make a record of the railroad”. The pair boarded the Texas Eagle in Chicago and rode Amtrak’s longest stretch of rail down to San Antonio and across to Los Angeles. At cities along the way, the two used the stop-break to record a classic American train song. The album, Shine A Light, comes out September 23 and reads as a tribute to the living history of the railroad in America.
Watching the music trailer on the Shine A Light website, it really seemed like making the record was a great deal of fun.
Joe Henry: It was in fact. I’ll confess the way the music was going to be created was what was most intriguing to me. These are all old songs, and most of us who come out of any folk tradition have know them forever. It’s a familiar vocabulary and that’s part of the point. But how we decided to engage them is what made it relevant and alive, and not just a revisiting of old campfire songs that most of us know in our sleep in some way or another.
Billy Bragg: It was fun, it was a lot of fun. There was the experience of being on the train for 65 hours and the 2,700 and whatever it is miles. But there was also the adrenaline of having to record a track before the train leaves. First you need to find a place to set up. Which was usually the waiting room. Most of the waiting rooms were built before the Second World War and are beautifully tiled and have great acoustics. But some of them were so far away from the train you couldn’t take a chance, so we had to perform next to the train on the platform. So you have the adrenaline of the stop coming, and then the finding the spot, and then playing all the time keeping your eye on the train listening for the “all aboard”.
Tell me more about how you recorded the album. What was your set-up like?
JH: Well, I enlisted the help of my engineer Ryan Freeland, who is my constant collaborator. I almost don’t do anything that doesn’t involve Ryan, and that’s been true for a decade. He’s a genius. He is completely an anomalous character as a recording engineer. He also was very excited about the idea because he thinks a lot about ambient sound and bleed between instruments. He came up with a really beautiful design of four ribbon microphones, on a single stand. He erected this mic stand almost like it was opening an umbrella. There was one mic for me getting voice and guitar, one mic for Bill getting his voice and guitar, and then a pair of ribbon mics that were all about ambient sound. We wanted it to read like a field recording, not a studio recording, but we also wanted it to sound fully robust and realized and three-dimensional. That was the challenge for Ryan as the recorder and for me as the formal producer.
BB: We didn’t want to make a record about the railroad, we wanted to make a record of the railroad. From the cathedral like atrium waiting room at El Paso, which was built for thousands of people and now deals with tens of people, right down to playing in one of the sleeping compartments where you can hear the general roll of the train underneath it, to everything else in between. On the last track you can hear the dawn chorus just starting at Los Angeles Union Station.
Billy, you mention seeing in El Paso a space designed for thousands of more people than are using it, but even though railroad travel has fallen off in the States, the U.S. would not be what it is if not for the railroad.
BB: I think in terms of experience, nothing ever created by human beings caused such a large paradigm shift in their experience as the railroad. Before the railroad came people could only travel as fast as a horse could gallop or a boat could glide. In my country, the way people consumed things hadn’t really changed since the middle ages. The food they ate, the clothes they wore, the things they used in their house everyday was all made locally. And most people burned wood, because you could only get coal in little corners of Wales and the North of England. When the railroad came, it kick-started a whole series of changes because suddenly you could get a whole series of things in your locale. Coal, to take that one example, was suddenly everywhere which meant that people started using it in the fire in their house, because you don’t need to chop it up, it’s easier. But if you cook over coal, the coal soot goes in your food. So people had to start using a hob. And when you start using a hob you need to get flat bottomed sauce pans, not round bottom sauce pans, and it just goes on and on.
JH: It probably is the single most revolutionary technology in the way this country was formed. Because before the railroad, as you likely know, any town or city needed to be accessible by water, or else you could never get supplies, materials, mail, all the things that are required for a city to flourish and evolve. But once the railroad happened, people were free to jump off in the middle of nowhere. It allowed out country to be both wildly expansive and connected, in as much as we ever are connected in this country. Our size is both our strength and our weakness, I think. So even though as passengers we don’t significantly travel by train any more, we forget its still a significant part of how we operate as a country. This is not a nostalgia project, this can’t be a record about how great trains were. That’s been done, and I didn’t like it that much when it was. What it has to be is a reminder that the train is an active part of our bloodstream that is still churning, and we need to acknowledge it. There’s so much of our daily lives that are still moved around by rail, and we are tempted to think of that as a completely antiquated notion. I don’t know how people are tempted to think how this all happens. But our whole country is not delivered by an Amazon van.
Yes it is difficult to remember the impact the railroad has in our lives today, and also amazing to imagine the impact the railroad must have had on people when it first came to America.
BB: That you could all of a sudden just go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning in a completely different place! That’s a real change in people’s consciousness. To be out on the prairie and seeing trains coming must have really blown people’s minds. Obviously for Native Americans, it was a terrible realization what that brought for them. And for settlers, it used to take six weeks to get from coast to coast, before the trans-continental railroad, and that cut it down to six days. And the first trans-continental railroad only had one steam shovel working on it the entire route, everything else was cracked by hand, you can’t not sing “John Henry” when you’re riding on the railroad. You got to pay respects to the men and women who looked after them, who physically cut through the rock, worked through the desert. That line from San Antonio to Los Angeles is mostly desert. Some poor souls had to dig that railroad. Lookin’ at the landscape you can’t help but feel impressed by the muscle and blood that must have been used up cutting its way across to the coast.
It is interesting that the railroad was a product of, and the means of realizing, industrial capitalism—which as you mention Billy requires so much of so many people—while at the same time trains are an iconic image of freedom.
BB: The railroad was the way ordinary people experienced the industrial revolution, first-hand. Suddenly you could stop being a share cropper and get on the railroad and go to Chicago and work in a factory. And then when the car came, and the airplane came afterwards, sure they brought changes, but they only really enhanced what the railroad had brought before. And this is why I think there are so many railroad songs. The railroad obviously brought a totally different mindset, and a lot of railroad songs aren’t about being on a train. All car songs are about being in a car. I mean “Folsom Prison” is a song about a train, its not a song about a prison. And Johnny ain’t on the train. But the line “hear that lonesome whistle” evokes something in our consciousness that is not evoked if you or I wrote a song “hear that lonesome car horn”.
JH: We elected not to record “Folsom Prison Blues” but Johnny Cash’s incredible and evocative image, if you remember that verse, where he’s in the prison he says “I bet there’s rich folks eatin, in that fancy dining car, they’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars” is the idea of seeing life move away from you and imagining, as we all tend to do, how much better other people have it. And if I could only just get there, its in sight and yet I cannot approach it. And there’s the invitation of more and better right there, moving away from me. That kind of existential panic is an incredibly American state of mind.
BB: So obviously the capitalist system is producing and relying on the distribution of both people and goods by freight, but I think there is a much deeper connection with railroads that individuals have, that transcends that. Think of a song like “In The Pines”. The train is a metaphor for so many emotions; leaving, arriving, aspiration. It’s almost as if, in terms of emotions, the train giveth and the train taketh away. So that’s what brought me to think about train songs, to think about the train as a place where all our hopes and fears are embodied in the possibilities that came with the railroad.
JH: I’m thinking about “Midnight Special”, and the idea of that song. Its inception was that there were prisoners, I believe it was in Angola, in Louisiana. And the train line, known as the Midnight Special, found a bend in the track right by the prison yard. And the story was if you were laying in your bunk at night and the high beam of the train passed over you, you would be the next to be released. Which is why the song says, “Let the Midnight Special shine its light on you”. The fact that there was the specter of this kind of cosmic authority that you were waiting to touch you and acknowledge you, and offer you some kind of liberation. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to look at the poetry of that notion, and say that’s what the train meant for people. Acknowledgement, liberation, possibility; where there might not exist any other.
With so many great train songs, how did you pick the ones you ended up recording?
BB: Well, I had some in my mind because I was thinking about the songs that had inspired people to play guitar in the UK, and that was basically Lead Belly’s repertoire. So we picked quite a few from Lead Belly. Jimmie Rogers had to be in there, obviously. We needed the Carter Family.
JH: We basically tried to play through songs together to see where we found active engagement, what felt alive to us, to look for where we found our voices naturally joining these songs, that would offer a living moment. Anything that felt like a relic, as if looking at a diorama at the natural history museum, we backed off of. We had to find a way for it to be alive for us. One song, “Gentle On My Mind” is one of my favorite things that happened on the record, and was never a consideration until we were in transit, sitting up late on the train one night on the way from Chicago to Texas.
BB: We were kind of goofin’ around and realized we both knew how to play it, and that the whole story is told from the perspective of a hobo in a rail-yard.
JH: I didn’t realize it related to our concepts in any way until I heard it in that moment. That this person talking wistfully about these relationships that remain important but slightly out of reach is walking the rail-line, is sleeping in a hobo jungle.
“Cupped hands around a tin can”.
JH: Right. And I heard it and thought this is an important part of the equation because it speaks directly to the perspective of life from the rails.
What was it like coming together to work on this project?
BB: Well I’ve been looking for an excuse to work together. When I thought of this project I really thought Joe would be a good person to do it with. Joe made an album in his cellar and he kept the windows and the doors open to keep the ambient sound of his neighborhood. Which I thought was absolutely brilliant. So I knew when I put this idea to him he wouldn’t be phased by it. He totally got it.
JH: Billy and I have been friends for over twenty years. I have so much love and admiration for him as a man and as an artist. I wouldn’t have to know what he was scheming to commit my involvement to it.
What would you like people to walk away from the album thinking?
BB: Really the railroad seems to have fallen out of the event horizon for most Americans, even though you see the train everyday and hear the whistles everyday, the actual “Oh yeah, the railroad” is gone. So if we could, make a small contribution in reconnecting people with not only what the railroad was but what it possibly could be in the future for America.
JH: The fact that these songs are alive as engageable vocabulary, still part of our mythology and working lives as people. Its death to a song to think its trapped in amber, and I think these are songs that should be taken up just as we take up Shakespeare, because there’s relevance, there’s still relevance to Richard III and King Lear right now.
Are you thinking about the Presidential Election?
BB: There’s nothing going on in politics that we should talk about, is there? Christ. We need someone like Woody who wrote five songs a day, that’s the only way to keep up with it. I think even he would perplexed.
Billy and Joe tour the US this fall. See their tour dates, the track list, and watch the album trailer where they perform “Midnight Special” below. Pre-order the album here.
Track Listing for Shine A Light:
1. Rock Island Line – Traditional (Recorded by Lead Belly, Lonnie Donegan)
2. The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore – Jean Ritchie
3. The Midnight Special – Traditional (Lead Belly)
4. Railroad Bill – Traditional (Riley Puckett)
5. Lonesome Whistle – Hank Williams
6. KC Moan – Traditional (The Memphis Jug Band)
7. Waiting For A Train – Jimmie Rodgers
8. In The Pines – Traditional (Lead Belly, The Louvin Brothers)
9. Gentle On My Mind – John Hartford (Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin)
10. Hobo’s Lullaby – Goebel Reeves (Woody Guthrie)
11. Railroading On The Great Divide – Sara Carter (The Carter Family)
12. John Henry – Traditional (Doc Watson)
13. Early Morning Rain – Gordon Lightfoot
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry N. American Tour Dates:
9/23 – Americana Festival – Nashville, TN
9/24 – Americana Festival – Nashville, TN
9/27 – Birchmere – Alexandria, VA
9/28 – Union Transfer – Philadelphia, PA
9/29 – New York Society For Ethical Culture – New York, NY
10/2 – The Wilbur – Boston, MA
10/4 – Bronson Centre – Ottawa, ON
10/5 – Danforth Music Hall – Toronto, ON
10/17 – Cedar Cultural Center – Minneapolis, MN
10/18 – Thalia Hall – Chicago, IL
10/21 – Neptune Theatre – Seattle, WA
10/22 – Aladdin Theater – Portland, OR
10/24 – Great American Music Hall – San Francisco, CA
10/25 – The Palace – Los Angeles, CA