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Billy Bragg and Joe Henry put down railroad tracks in the studio

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry's album is 'Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad'
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry's album is 'Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad'Courtesy of Cooking Vinyl
  Play Now [23:33]

by Mike Pengra

October 20, 2016

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry - In the Pines (live on The Current)
by MPR
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry - Railroad Bill (live on The Current)
by MPR
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry - Gentle On My Mind (live on The Current)
by MPR

It's about so much more than train songs.

"If we had just gone into the studio and made an album called Bill and Joe Like Trains, we probably wouldn't be sitting here," Billy Bragg jokes.

"I don't think either one of us would have had any thought about going into a recording studio and recording 'John Henry' — there's no need," Joe Henry adds. "But what it was about was real-time engagement and putting the song into the air and disappearing into it and reminding ourselves that this is a part of our living heritage."

What Bragg and Henry are doing is shining a light on the deep connection between the railroads and the American identity by collecting and performing railroad songs. That's why they've released the thoughtfully titled Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. Now touring in support of the album, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry visited Minnesota Public Radio for an in-studio session hosted by Mike Pengra. The session airs on Radio Heartland on Thursday, Oct. 20, and on The Current's United States of Americana on Sunday, Oct. 30.

To emphasize the inextricable yet slightly invisible connection between railroads and the cultural and literal American landscape, Bragg and Henry took a train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles, recording the songs on the album in train stations along the route. The resulting album comprises these actual field recordings, complete with ambient sounds from the platforms, waiting rooms and great halls of the stations they visited.

In the songs collected by Bragg and Henry, they point out that trains come to stand for more than a mode of transport. "It is part of our cultural poetry," Henry says. "It's certainly not about nostalgia. … When a car enters a song, it's a car. When a plane flies through one, it usually stands to represent an airplane. But as soon as you conjure the railroad, you are putting into the air loss, regret, possibility, future."

As a British musician, Bragg points out that the British explosion in popular music in the 1960s was sparked by skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan's recording of "Rock Island Line" in 1956. "He's the first British performer ever to get into the charts playing a guitar," Bragg says, "and he inspires a generation of kids — and by kids, I mean 13, 14 and 15, that was the ages of Harrison, McCartney and Lennon when they went to see Lonnie Donegan in Liverpool in '56 — to pick up guitars and learn three chords. And almost all the songs they learned were railroad songs, many of them from Leadbelly's repertoire. It got me interested … in how many railroad songs there are, and how they're so much more than just songs about trains."

As for making the cultural connection between trains and America, Henry credits Bragg for illuminating that. "The concept for this project I think would have had to come from somebody outside the United States who cares about us," Henry says. "Because we're sort of chin-deep in the middle of a big lake, and somebody asks, 'What shape is this lake?' We can't possibly know, but there's Bill up in the firetower, and he can understand very well the dimension of what we're in the midst of. A lot of what I've learned about these songs historically and about their relevance now was either directly from Bill or reawakened in me because of Bill."

Use the audio player above to hear the complete session with Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, which features song performances and conversation.

Songs Performed

"In the Pines"
"Railroad Bill"
"Gentle On My Mind"
All songs from the 2016 album Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, available on Cooking Vinyl.

Hosted by Mike Pengra
Produced by Mike Pengra and Derrick Stevens
Engineered by Michael DeMark and Jalen Russell
Visuals by Leah Garaas
Web feature by Luke Taylor


Billy Bragg - official site

Joe Henry - official site