Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad
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Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

Recorded while travelling across America by train Shine A Light features songs originally made famous by Hank Williams, Lead Belly, The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Glen Campbell, Gordon Lightfoot & more!


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, released via Cooking Vinyl, is 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.

In March 2016 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 Shine A Light - Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad 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 Bragg and Joe Henry most recently worked together when Henry produced Bragg’s acclaimed 2013 album Tooth & Nail.

Track listing:

  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 (Glenn 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)

 

 

Review

I must confess I expected this album to be another version of Mermaid Avenue, the wonderful set of albums released by Bragg and Wilco all those years ago using the lyrics of Woody Guthrie. I was a fair way off with my expectations. What takes place here is a lesson in timing, acoustics, history and harmony.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry (one of my favourite artists) jumped onto the train Texas Eagle at Union Station, Chicago, and rode its 2, 728 miles all the way down to San Antonio, Texas and then across to Los Angeles, California. At stops along the way they would get out, set up shop and record a song or songs, depending on how long they had to wait for their train to leave. Ambient noise and the recordings’ casual approach are the strength behind this album. The partnership is loose and gives the album a campfire, sing-a-long feel. I do feel that Joe Henry is the strength behind this album, but you can’t help getting caught up in Billy Braggs’ sense of love for American stories and history, and there is no more important story that helped shape modern America than that of the development of the railroad. Small-town America was suddenly connected to the big cities. East coast was connected to west coast and north to south. All of sudden, people had hope. Hope that they could move to a better life: jump on a train and you never know where you may end up or what you may end up doing.

The pair cover classic train songs by Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Glen Campbell, Woody Guthrie, The Carter Family, Doc Watson and Gordon Lightfoot, to name a few, and tell stories steeped in the history of the railroad. These are the stories of love, hope, freedom and the search for a better life. It’s all about connecting.


Lou Fulco works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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