Punk/folk troubador Billy Bragg has flirted with Americana in the past on 'Tooth & Nail' and the three 'Mermaid Avenue' collections but on his new album, 'Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad', he establishes himself firmly as an Americana artist.
The album, a collaboration with jazz/alt-country artist Joe Henry, is a collection of songs inspired by the US rail network and was recorded in waiting rooms and ticket halls and on platforms and by the side of the tracks during a train journey of almost 3000 miles, from Chicago to Los Angeles.
It’s a fine piece of work, atmospheric and full of yearning but always respectful of the lives and histories of the men and women who created the songs in the collection. It’s accompanied by a fascinating website which has images, video and text explaining more about the trip and the history of the railroad and about the songs and their writers.
Billy is currently on tour in the UK with Joe Henry and he was kind enough to make time to talk to us about music, trains, politics and coming to terms with the big A.
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Congratulations to you and Joe on a really fine album. I’ve been listening to the album and checking out its very own website and it has a lovely spare, stripped back sound and a great choice of songs. Are the videos on the site the actual takes?
They are the actual takes. We took a couple of guys along with us to do the sound and take photos, so there was five of us in the travelling crew including me and Joe.
There’s a lot of ambient sound on the record. Whistles and echoes and birdsong. It almost seems like the railway is part of the performance. Was that intentional?
We wanted the album to be like a journey for the listener so that it would be possible to sit back, put your headphones on and play through the whole album. The modern way is to play music one track at a time on your iPad or your phone, but we wanted people to travel with us – hence the map on the website showing our progress and talking about the songs.
Was Joe Henry an obvious choice of collaborator? Had you worked with him before?
Yeah, Joe produced my last album, 'Tooth & Nail'. We recorded it in his basement with his guys and I felt that we rediscovered some of the spirit of 'Mermaid Avenue'.
Do you now consider yourself a fully fledged Americana artist? Did you have any problem with that label?
No, not really. When you think of the people I’ve grown up listening to, like Woody and Lead Belly and Bob Dylan and Otis Redding. I went to the Americana Awards in Nashville in 2013 to present an award and their definition of Americana is very broad. It’s any new music that’s inspired by the roots music of America.
Seemingly you’re writing a book on the skiffle era?
Yes, I’ve delivered the manuscript now but I found when I was researching that it’s almost as if people have forgotten where some of our music came from and that many people had forgotten skiffle or didn’t appreciate its significance. But it’s much more important than that, particularly the early period, from about 1955-56 when British music changed almost beyond recognition. Lonnie Donegan was the first British artist to get into the charts playing a guitar. Up to then British artists were jazz players and crooners and the book tells the story of how our pop music went from being jazz-based to being guitar-led. It hinges on Donegan and Rock Island Line but skiffle didn’t come out of nowhere. Donegan was the banjo player in Chris Barber’s jazz band and the song was recorded for a jazz record in July 1954 – a week after Elvis Presley recorded ‘That’s All Right, Mama’.
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Your version of ‘Rock Island Line’ is much closer to the original 1934 Alan Lomax recording than to the knockabout pig iron version made known by Lead Belly and Donegan. Was that the result of a conscious decision?
We had a choice with these songs. Me and Joe could have gone into the studio and made an album of covers and called it Bill & Joe Like Trains but we wanted to do something more challenging, to get back to the origins of the songs.
Lead Belly was with John Lomax at the Cummins State Farm Prison in Arkansas when Kelly Pace arrived with seven other inmates to sing ‘Rock Island Line’ and he added the pig iron story to it later. He’s the guiding spirit on this new album. We’ve played four or five songs from his repertoire but on this occasion we wanted to go back to the song as it was first recorded and find its true meaning.
And that’s why we’ve included such a slow sweet version of ‘Gentle On My Mind’. It has a stream of consciousness poetry to it and when Joe puts that soft guitar line to it, it just brings the lyrics to the foreground. Sometimes we can miss things in songs. We did a radio show in the USA and the presenter said what a big fan of the song he was and how he’d always loved it. Afterwards he mentioned the line that goes “I dip my cup of soup in some gurglin', cracklin' cauldron in some train yard” and he asked if it was in the Glen Campbell version. And we said yes and he said “Wow, I’ve never heard it before.”
There’s a distinctively American poetry about some of these railroad songs. Do you think there could ever be a British version?
I don’t think so because I think that in many cases the railroad song is a metaphor for escape or aspiration, or else it involves heartbreak or parting or reunion, and in our culture, because of where we live, the songs that fill that space tend to be sea shanties. If you were a young man in the Victorian period or even in the early twentieth century and you wanted a new life and to escape your circumstances then you signed up for the Royal Navy or the merchant navy. You couldn’t hop on a train in the UK and wake up in a different jurisdiction where the police wouldn’t be after you any more but you could get on a boat and go somewhere else in the empire and escape your past, whether it was a bad relationship or crime or poverty or whatever.
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Your journey took you from the rust belt, which swung so decisively for Trump down to the Mexican border, following the route of his proposed wall through places like Tucson and El Paso. A train journey gives you a different view of places. Did it show you an unfamiliar view of America?
It did. When you’re driving into a town you come in off the freeway and through the strip malls and you don’t stop very often but as the train comes in it has to slow down, because it’s crossing active roads, and you might find yourself looking out over a trailer park, or through someone’s back window. It gives you a different perspective. While we were travelling, which was in March, Trump was talking about his wall and the referendum campaign was going down and we were talking a lot about those events – four Americans and me – and we compared notes.
In the USA people don’t usually travel on the train as first choice. They’re usually either too poor to fly, or they’re too ill to fly or they don’t want to show their ID to fly and many of them can’t afford a sleeping compartment like we had and they just sleep in their seats. That’s how they get from the mid-west to the coast.
A lot of the songs on the album are outsider songs. Now that the presidential election has been won by a billionaire self-proclaimed outsider do you think that these songs might have changed their meaning and become songs that could be sung at Trump rallies?
I’ll tell you how they’ve changed for me. Almost all of them are about people living on the edge, people travelling long distances in search of better times and when we sing those songs every night I don’t just hear echoes of Woody Guthrie, I hear the voices of the men in the Calais jungle or of people trying to make their way into the USA across the border from Mexico, or of the people in camps in Turkey, coming from Aleppo.
When our taxes are paying to stop people escaping that horror I don’t think we have any moral authority to start lecturing Trump about his wall. Those are the things that resonate with me when I sing those songs.
We seem to be in an era when people are looking for something beyond the normal range of alternatives and at the moment the left doesn’t seem to be able to provide it. Would you be in favour of a realignment, a new left coalition?
I think that what people are looking for is transformation. They want their lives transformed and at the moment many people are falling for the simplistic idea that this could be achieved simply by excluding immigrants. People seem unprepared to accept that capitalism itself needs to be fundamentally changed. Globalisation and neo-liberalism can not solve all our problems. The markets can not sort everything out. The market only chooses winners and losers and when the majority of ordinary people are losing that something has to change. We have to admit that it is us, not the immigrants, who have caused the mess but it’s not going to be easy to get people to accept that.
Obviously you were a big fan of Prince and Bowie but how did you react to the death of Leonard Cohen? Was he somebody you admired?
Very much so. He was the artist who allowed those of us who wrote songs to harbour some literary pretensions. If song writing was ever poetry it was in his work. The thing about Cohen was that he never changed. He just kept chipping away at the world trying to make some sense of it and although he could bring a terrible pessimism to his work there was always room for a little light, a little crack in everything as he said himself. Great songwriters tell us awful truths about ourselves but they also offer a sliver of redemption.
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Words: Ian Pickles
'Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad' is out now.