Billy Bragg & Joe Henry: Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad
It’s been a long time since the railroad—and songs about trains—played a significant role in American life. These days, most of us who board a train at all usually do so as commuters, surrounded by other tired and miserable people with heads buried in electronic devices, not paying any attention to whatever rolls by outside. But Billy Bragg, the English singer-songwriter, and his American counterpart Joe Henry love the railroading song tradition and accordingly set out to honor it in the best possible way. They boarded a cross-country train and recorded train-related songs at various stations along the way. Most of these will be familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of folk music: Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting for a Train,” Lead Belly’s “Midnight Special,” John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” and numerous traditional tunes. The arrangements are necessarily simple: two voices in harmony and a couple of guitars, stories being told. Sometimes you can hear the hum of the hubbub as the two take up another tune, another homage. The glory days of railroading may be behind us, but these songs will always serve to remind.