Billy Bragg

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Billy Bragg

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However, Bragg’s Englishness has long been a significant aspect of his artistic identity. So, Americana award aside, it would’ve be hard to foresee his latest release, Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad – a collection of 13 American folk and blues standards made alongside American songwriter and producer Joe Henry.


As the title implies, the album is made up of what Bragg refers to as “railroad songs”, including those written or popularised by Lead Belly, The Carter Family, Glenn Campbell, Johnny Cash and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. It’s a covers album, which makes it even more unexpected considering Bragg’s longstanding affiliation with political activism and his punk rock approach to folk music. But he assures us that Shine A Light isn’t a harbinger of fading intent.


“I think it’s very important when you’re doing a covers record that you bring another perspective,” Bragg says. “What’s the point of making art if you’re not going to offer a new perspective on something? That’s what’s always driven my songwriting. Whether it’s a love song or a political song, it doesn’t really matter; I’m trying to impart something that I can see that I don’t think anybody else has picked up on.


“The most you can do with any art is send someone away with a different perspective. You can’t change things, but you can change people’s perspective.”


The album is a stripped back affair, featuring just two voices and two acoustic guitars. Correspondingly, Bragg and Henry haven’t vastly restructured any of the selected railroad songs, but their overarching ambitions were quite pointed.


“A lot of the songs we recorded are songs that people are vaguely familiar with – ‘Midnight Special’ and ‘Waiting For a Train’ – but it’s a long time since anyone’s brought them back into the light and said, ‘Look there’s another way of looking at this,’” Bragg says. “These aren’t some dusty things on a shelf. This railroad is still here, still functions. We’re trying to say to people, ‘This is really still there. You can still do this.’ Because the Americans don’t really think so much about riding on the trains.”


Midway through the 20th century, cars supplanted trains as the primary means of transportation in America. Owning a car is viewed as a symbol of freedom, but in Bragg’s reckoning, the advent of the car was far less significant than the introduction of the train. “The railroad obviously played a huge part in connecting their country,” he says. “It connected the disparate parts of the United States of America in a way that was perhaps more transformational than any other technology that has come since – much more than the internet. The internet connects us, telephones connect us; but the physical connections of the railroad, coming after millennia where people could only travel as fast as a horse could gallop or a ship could sail, that transformation [was far greater].”


The significance of this shift is reflected in the language that permeates railroad songs. “In the American tradition the train is often a metaphor for something else,” says Bragg. “When a car is in a song it’s very often the person who’s driving the car. Nobody ever writes the line, ‘I heard that lonesome car alarm going off last night.’ Or if a plane’s in a song, it tends to be just a plane. But the train is something much deeper.”


Bragg and Henry are adamant that Shine A Light isn’t a nostalgia project, and they were especially interested in emphasising the expressive nuances of railroad symbolism. “If you think of a song like ‘In The Pines’, the train is the thing that’s broke his heart. The only girl he ever loved is on that train and gone. If you think of ‘Love in Vain’ by Robert Johnson, the train is the thing that allows something that was fixed, your relationship, to be broken, to be mobile. It gives your partner other options. So metaphorically it becomes the thing that’s cheated on you. I think it’s the metaphorical aspect of the train in the American railroad song that both Joe and I were really interested in exploring.” 


Along with successfully re-contextualising the source material, there’s a great narrative behind the making of Shine A Light. Bragg and Henry recorded it during a three day cross-country rail journey from Chicago to Los Angeles, cutting tracks on the train platform, in station halls or inside the train carriage. It’s an admirable creative approach, the musician’s equivalent of method acting, but more importantly it’s resulted in a compelling 13-track album that plays like a united body of work.


“People only listen to tracks now and we wanted to take people on a journey with the album,” Bragg says. “The vinyl is a gatefold sleeve and it has a map in the middle of it. We wanted people to get on with us in Chicago and stay with us all the way until the end – to listen to the album in its entirety, not just listen to a track here and a track there.


“The album has lost its narrative thread over the last 10 to 20 years because of the digitisation of music. I’ve no problem with digitisation. I don’t have a problem with Spotify. I think if that’s how people want to listen to music, we have to find a way to work with that, but it has broken down the narrative power of the album. And without making a concept album, because that sounds highfalutin, we did want to try and restore some of that narrative by going on a journey, literally, and hoping that the listener will come with us.”


You might be thinking, “that’s all well and good,” but was it absolutely essential to record the thing in and around trains? Wouldn’t it have been better to go into a studio after the expedition and get everything sounding just right? Well, not only does the record have an impressive sonic quality, highlighting the complementary dynamic between the two folkies’ voices, but the ambience provided by the recording locations enhances the impact. “What you’re hearing on the record is the environment that we’re in. If you listen closely on headphones, never mind the extraneous noises, I think you can actually hear the space that we’re in. When we’re on the train recording ‘Lonesome Whistle’ you can hear the padded sleeper car. You can hear when we’re in El Paso that we’re in a cathedral of a railroad station. You can hear Alpine is a large room, the waiting room there.


“We had a mike each and we faced each other as we sang, but then we had another two mics at right angles to us that were picking up the environmental sounds and that was really, really important.”


Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad is out now via Cooking Vinyl Australia.