In 1856, the first railroad bridge crossed the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. One hundred years later, British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan had a top hit with “Rock Island Line,” first popularized by Lead Belly.
Sixty years after that, Bill Bragg and Joe Henry boarded Amtrak’s Texas Eagle line in Chicago, and as the pair traveled the next four days over the rails to Los Angeles, they recorded their own version of “Rock Island Line” and 12 other classic train songs.
The resulting album, Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad, is a bold and fascinating project that examines one particularly enduring subject in the history of American music. To accompany the album, the duo put together a website for the project, with photos, video clips and railroad history from each stop along the route.
“The coming of the railroad was such a paradigm shift in human existence, anywhere really. The railway had a knock-on effect of connecting people to things they hadn’t previously experienced. It had such a psychological effect. Suddenly people could think beyond the horizon,” Bragg says. “The huge number of songs written about the railroad is the sort of fossilized evidence of that change in human existence.”
Nobody, Bragg says, sings about a lonesome car horn honking. Or writes legends of the great highway pavers. But railroads have captured the imagination of songwriters in a way that speaks to the unlimited potential in travel. And in a very practical sense, railroads played a huge role in spreading American musical styles around the country.
A longtime student of American history and folk music, Bragg first conceived what would become Shine A Light while researching how the guitar came to the forefront of British music. Skiffle players in the 1950s adopted as their repertoire the songs of Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and others. The key figure was Lonnie Donegan, the most influential British artist before The Beatles.
“It amazed me how many songs in the skiffle repertoire were train songs, and that got me wondering,” Bragg says. “In folk and blues and country, all those different genres of American music, the train is really an important subject, but also a metaphor.”
Bragg’s fascination with this bedrock subject of American music deepened and turned to Henry, who produced Bragg’s 2013 record Tooth & Nail. Friends since the 1980s, they’d been considering a collaboration for years, and after Tooth & Nail, the door was wide open.
“Even though this is all music I’ve grown up with and have always loved, Billy brought a very unique perspective to it, wanting to look at it not only from the a historical perspective, but the ways in which that history is still alive for us,” Henry says.
The pair traded songs back and forth in email and phone conversations for months, getting together at Henry’s house in Los Angeles for just two days before departing for Chicago. Crossing America on the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited lines, they logged 2,728 miles of rail, recording as they passed through St. Louis, Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso and Tucson before returning to Los Angeles.
“We’d never talked about it any other way than recording as a hopped-up field recording, out in the world. Neither one of us would’ve been interested the same way just going into the studio and doing a polished performance of these songs,” Henry says. “The real intriguing hook for me was to put ourselves literally in motion and engage ourselves with the railroad as it exists now.”
Bragg and Henry found it easy to surrender to the demands of their field-recording schedule, including the time limitations and the ambient sounds that inevitably crept onto the songs.
“We really wanted to just sing these songs as if people were singing them around a campfire, just joining them and taking the focus off what we might be uniquely doing with them as artists in favor of disappearing into them,” Henry says. “What drove us was to put ourselves so deeply into this music and into the environment so that we were much less important as artists than the songs and the mythology.”
Some artists were determined right off the bat. Henry calls Lead Belly “the patron saint for us on this trip.” After the Mermaid Avenue records, Woody Guthrie was an obvious choice for Bragg. Hank Williams certainly belonged. Other songs came up on the journey, like “Gentle On My Mind,” the John Hartford classic that became a big hit for Glen Campbell.
“One thing we both challenged ourselves to do was not try in any way to be deliberately obscure in terms of song selection. We didn’t want to shy away from things that are well known simply because they are. That speaks directly to the endurance of this music,” Henry says. “When you look at songs like ‘Midnight Special’ and ‘John Henry’ for instance, things that have been so ubiquitous in folk music and American culture, what we’re trying to do is remind people and remind ourselves how vivid this music remains.”
Apart from the train whistle at the very top of the record, meant to spark the listener’s imagination, everything is recorded as it was, slamming doors, whistling birds and train announcements included. And, crucially, everything was done on Amtrak’s schedule.
“The immediacy and the urgency of having got do things on the fly really sets your priorities straight, really challenges you to live with what you set out to do abstractly,” Henry says. “It was very exciting and very liberating.”
Train stations have long been the realms of buskers, with performers struggling just to get a moment’s notice from an indifferent public hurrying to work. In that sense, those momentary roles Bragg and Henry took on while playing were normal instead of being an intrusion or distraction.
“To me it was really beautiful to realize people didn’t really pay us any mind at all. They very quickly accepted the fact that we were standing there singing because people have always stood there and given voice,” Henry says. “Two guys with guitars in a train station as it turns out is nothing new.”
The duo looked to record in waiting rooms, most of which are pre-World War II, with tiled walls and brilliant acoustics. Sometimes though, the station was too far away from the train to take the chance. In St. Louis, they recorded outside, right next to the train. Often, the place and the song formed the perfect match.
“‘Lonesome Whistle,’ which is one of the quieter songs, we actually did on the train at night,” Bragg says. “We were in a sleeping compartment and the rumble of the train was really lilting and we could hear the train whistle, so it just felt like the right place at the right time.”
In San Antonio, the expedition paused for the night, taking rooms at the historic Gunter Hotel, where Robert Johnson had his first recording session. Bragg himself slept in that same room, 414. Before departing the next morning, they recorded Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train,” learning weeks later that Rodgers also lived for a time at the Gunter Hotel.
A fitting spot to record the Carter Family’s “Railroading on the Great Divide” came in El Paso, the last stop before their train would cross over the Great Divide. In Tucson, where the “Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers worked as a switchman for the Southern Pacific Railroad, they recorded a rousing version of “John Henry.”
Arriving unexpectedly ahead of schedule in Los Angeles—at 4:30 a.m.—they recorded Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” a tune about homesickness written in the era when airplanes began overtaking the railroads. Singing on a covered walkway outside Union Station, their first take woke up the birds.
“On the take that we used, you can hear the birds from the dawn chorus singing on it,” Bragg says. “It fit beautifully. That added to the sense of the poor guy sitting out there by the airport watching the planes taking off, wondering how he’s going to get home.”
Closing the record with a reminder that life is always evolving felt appropriate. While the songs reach into the past, one point Bragg wanted to convey is that railroads are about more than just nostalgia.
“It’s a bit like Mermaid Avenue where you think to yourself ‘I wonder of people will get this,’” Bragg says. “We weren’t just talking about how it used to be, how it was in the old days. It’s not in the past. The railroad is very much in the present, but people don’t always think of it anymore.”
For Henry, that’s true about railroads and also the songs themselves.
“Some songs, like ‘Midnight Special,’ people will relate that directly to Lead Belly. On the other hand, what I love about these songs is we all know different versions and sometimes there’s nothing definitive. It’s raw vocabulary and how you choose to take it up and what you say with it is what matters,” he says.
“They’re there to be utilized like a tool, not visited like a museum relic. You’re not doing anything in imitation, you’re just reminding yourself this stuff is still there to be energized and embodied.”
For more from Billy Bragg, check out his performance from SXSW 2013 in the player below.