Romance with the Rails
Written by Stu O’Connor
America has multiple personalities, and for each of those personalities, there is a history and a mythology. There is, of course, the official narrative of the brilliance and boldness (true) of our Founding Fathers, and the alternative histories spun by Howard Zinn and Oliver Stone, which are both worth a perusal. There is also the fascinating history of the Great American Hucksters, which outlines the long and rich history of The Con in American life. As a practitioner of that con, P. T. Barnum once famously stated, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” While all of these versions of American history feed into our national psyche, perhaps nothing quite captures our true nature like the idea that better things and better times are just down the line aways, or as Mark Twain had Huck Finn do, “Light[ing] out for the territories.” And perhaps the most romantic of the motifs related to that theme is America’s romance with the rails. From the bridging of the North American continent in 1869 to the beginning of deregulation in the 1970s and beyond, the rails have been a palpable and persuasive myth for us. Many still believe railroads are the best and most comfortable way to travel.
How can we connect to this national mythology in the first part of the 21st century, where the once mighty rails appear to be an anachronistic, yet still-potent vehicle for moving freight from place to place? In the pursuit of a great idea, two fine musicians boarded a passenger train in Chicago in 2016 and rode those mythic American rails all the way to L. A. The result is the wonderful disc recorded by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, entitled Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad. Bragg, who is British, seems to understand the American psyche far better than most Americans. The evidence is in both his work here and with Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue series, where many unknown Woody Guthrie lyrics were put to music, a project which yielded three fine albums. Writer-producer and three-time Grammy-winning North Carolinian Joe Henry has been a creative presence on the American folk scene since the release of his first album, Talk of Heaven, in 1986.
Shine a Light transcends the decades, and reminds us of the power of our romance with the rails and some of her greatest advocates, like Leadbelly, Hank Williams, and The Memphis Jug Band. The album starts with the rolling clatter of a train on the tracks and it’s unmistakable whistle, before segueing into the seminal “Rock Island Line.” Like the rails, the album is simple, direct – and very American, in all the best ways. Throughout their sojourn, the duo stopped and created “field recordings” in the bustle of rail stations, hotels, and train platforms across the country. Bragg and Henry stay true to the feel of these great songs and reverently pay tribute, while adding some creative twists of their own that enhance them, without distracting from the basic texts. A case in point is the title track in its more original form, where the chorus dispenses with Leadbelly’s redundant chorus about the Midnight Special and converts it back to an old-school call-and-response that rings potent and true.
If you’re a fan of trains, or of the Great American Folk Songbook, as I am, this album is a must-have. Or if, out of curiosity, you want to hear just how alive and viable the great tradition of the railroad still is implanted in the American psyche, you should definitely give it a listen. It’s a great recording that is consistently surprising and never cliche-ridden. From the first railroad whistle to the last note ringing from the acoustic guitars, it has the feel of an American original.
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
Shine a Light : Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad
© 2016 Billy Bragg under License to Cooking Vinyl, Ltd.
Stu O’Connor is an educator, musician, and poet who has spent his life dedicated to the power of the word, the necessity of precision in language, and the human need for story as a method of transmitting culture, ideas, and understanding. He has been published in The Mad Poets Review, New Voices in American Poetry, and the Poetry Ink 20 th Anniversary Anthology. He has an undergraduate degree from West Chester University, a Master’s degree from Gratz College, and teaches English in the West Chester Area School District. He has held an Advisory Board seat for West Chester University’s Writing Zones program and currently is an Advisory Board member for The Mad Poets Society, one of the Philadelphia Region’s largest poetry groups. He performs music on a regular basis with two bands and hosts a poetry series in West Chester called ”Living on Luck” for The Mad Poets Society.