Billy Bragg & Joe Henry | Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad
Words by Cara Gibney, images by /Tremaine Gregg
“Joe and I have been friends for 30 years” said Billy Bragg of fellow singer songwriter Joe Henry who was standing beside him on stage at the Ulster Hall in Belfast. “We built our brotherhood from our love for Woody Guthrie” he continued. It was another piece to the jigsaw, it helped explain why it was that particular pair who boarded a train last March at Union Station in Chicago. And why, over the following four days, while snaking their way across nearly 3000 miles to Los Angeles, they sang and recorded railroad songs that would ultimately become the album Shine A Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad, that led to the consequent tour we were attending that night.
It was the final night of the Out To Lunch festival. Indeed, the finale of the Out To Lunch festival. The festival Director was looking forward to this one. He’d already told me about a favourite Billy Bragg gig he’d attended in which Bragg had held up a newspaper to the crowd with a big headline splashed across it about Margaret Thatcher. Mr Bragg remembers that night as well. “It’s a great privilege playing this place” he had grinned. “I played here the night Thatcher resigned.” The room cheered; there were a few of us of that vintage in the crowd. (22nd November 1990 in case you’re wondering).
Back to 2017, and the night was divided between solo sets, with a couple of joint sets. Joe Henry shifted between guitar and grand piano for his. His mood was sombre, seemed weary at the thoughts of the fight ahead. But he’s ready for it. He talked of his late friend the musician Allen Toussaint; indeed he sang homage to Toussiant’s ‘Freedom For The Stallion,’ introducing it with a story about Toussaint overcoming terrible losses during Hurricane Katrina and how he had commented afterwards that “This isn’t a drowning, it’s a baptism.” It’s an attitude that resonated with Henry, amazed at the grace and the strength involved, it was an approach Henry saw gold in. “That’s what we have to do now,” he told us.
When he sat at the piano he explained his next song. “This was written while my country was involved in an illegal war in Iraq” he recalled. “I ask myself the same question now” and he broke into “Our Song,” nearly 20 years old, a generation ago, but still as relevant and as current as when he wrote it.
Mr Bragg didn’t really have much to say. Actually that’s a lie. He was his usual politically-disorderly self. Challenging, hard hitting, tuned in, scornful, and calling to arms. He talked about how empathy isn’t enough, about how it needs action. Empathy on its own is just like listening to records, feeling the feelings but not doing anything with them.
“I wonder about my moral authority” he stated, listing points that would contest his –our-position to judge. How much we pay Turkey to keep Syrian refugees in tents for example, or pay France to keep men in the Calais jungle. He sang Anaïs Mitchell’s ‘Why We Build The Wall.’ If you don’t know it you seriously need to click the link. (It’s Greg Brown’s version from Hadestown, sorry Billy). He sang ‘Between the Wars,’ he sang ‘Accident Waiting To Happen.’ (“You’re a dedicated swallower of fascism.” What a line.) He sang an updated version of ‘The Times They Are a-Changin … Back.’ There were cheers as he listed Mexicans and Muslims and LGBT and Jews. ‘Keep an eye on the news, President Trump tells us his views’ is how I remember the line. He looked down at the ground and nodded for a while after he’d finished.
“My country confuses patriotism with nationalism” said Henry as he stood on stage with Billy Bragg, opening the last set of the night. It helped the mood endure but this part of the night wasn’t as necessarily written around the politics. The songs were written and performed during the politics – a witness. Of all those years ago. That’s what made them pertinent. Bragg explained the “metaphorical importance” that trains have in American song, and as he spoke, the album, the journey, the recording, the lyrics, it all made more sense – these old songs have recorded the times, the desires, the deprivations and the industry.
‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ was one of Woody Guthrie’s favourites apparently. (‘Hobo’ being just another term for economic migrant, Bragg was keen to point out). Hank’s ‘Lonesome Whistle’ had shared vocals, ending with Joe on the last line, on the long note, on the few final strums of the guitar. When they came back on for the encore, Bragg thanked us for “making Americana great again,” and Henry laughed that he could remember when that was funny. And when all was done and it was time to go, we entered the cold January night with ‘Midnight Special’ in our head, and a spark of fire in our belly.