Billy Bragg and Joe Henry “Shine A Light” on modern society through the lens of the Great American Train Song – The Ark, Ann Arbor, 19-Oct-2016.
Much more than just a collection of folk song standards, “Shine A Light” speaks to the grand optimism of America, the men who built the rails to expand the territories, the men who ride them, and the families supported or torn apart by them. In these times of a divided America, the railroad can be seen as both a symbol of segregation, separating the haves from the have nots, and as a symbol of progress, enabling people to move on to new opportunities in this Land of Opportunity. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry played both sides of this coin at the Ark in Ann Arbor last night, to a sold-out crowd of passionate, active listeners, “a lively lot”, as Billy proclaimed.
Billy and Joe have been friends for 30 years, so they must have had a grand old time spending three weeks riding the Texas Eagle from Chicago to Los Angeles, recording songs in train station waiting rooms and hotel suites. The result of this is a hugely evocative collection of field recordings, complete with the sound of train announcers, rail cars banging together, birds and people chattering, and the immediacy of live performance, two guitars, two voices, four mics, straight to tape. Any comparison to Alan Lomax’s folk song collecting tours of the American South is completely intentional, because as Joe noted, songs like “Rock Island Line” were first recorded as call-and-response songs by work gangs in the prisons of Texas and Louisiana. Billy’s direct, uncomplicated delivery, both in his guitar playing and singing, cohabitated well with Joe’s flourishes and more fluid style, not just in this one song, but throughout the portions of last night’s set where they shared the stage. The spirits of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Jimmy Rodgers, the Carter Family, and, yes, Lonnie Donegan were in attendance last night, and especially so during the recording of the album, where at one point Billy Bragg ended up by chance in the same hotel room where Robert Johnson laid down about half of the tracks he ever recorded.
As the stage announcer remarked before the show began, both of these artists have dedicated fan bases in and around Ann Arbor and could easily sell out the venue for their solo shows, so it was no surprise that both played short solo sets on either side of an intermission. First up was Joe Henry, whose contributions included a beautiful solo acoustic version of “Trampoline”, and the crowd favorite “Our Song”, ostensibly about meeting Willie Mays at a Home Depot while checking out garage door openers, but last night highlighted as a “campaign song”, about looking to make something graceful of oneself in a graceless time, balancing keeping doors closed with holding them open. Joe also paid musical tribute to his friend and mentor Allen Toussaint, who died earlier this year, just weeks after Joe finished producing what turned out to be Allen’s last album.
Speaking of campaign songs, it came as a shock to pretty much nobody (perhaps with the exception of the couple in front of me, who looked more than a little uncomfortable) that Billy Bragg came out swinging for the fences in left field, introducing and interspersing his solo numbers with a mixture of warnings about the dangers of electing Donald Trump, and the dive of his homeland into the unknown abyss that is Brexit. “Accident Waiting to Happen” with its “dedicated swallower of fascism” protagonist, really hit home, but not so much as his cover of “Why We Build The Wall” by Anais Mitchell. Check it out if you don’t know it. Billy also paralleled the surprise results of the Brexit referendum in the UK, and the complacency that led to that result, with complacency among the US electorate, warning that inaction and lack of organization could lead to a Trump presidency, before launching into “There is Power in a Union”, with its stomp-along chorus. So, although the years may have robbed Billy of the flame in his hair, it still blazes in his heart, red as ever.
Bringing Joe back to the stage naturally dialed the politics back a notch, but not completely. Billy talked of the dismantling of the Calais Jungle, a refugee camp on the French side of the rail tunnel between France and England, by way of introduction to Woody Guthrie’s “Ramblin’ Round Your City”, about a young man who left his sweetheart and parents in search of a better life. Billy reminded the audience that during the Dust Bowl Exodus, California had border guards to inspect the Okies coming across the State Line, and drew parallels to the way some conservative MPs in the UK have called for counting the teeth of child refugees seeking asylum in the UK, to make sure they are really children! Joe Henry then talked about the last leg of their journey from El Paso, TX to Los Angeles. He asked us all to consider that there are more ways to interpret the Carter Family’s “Railroading on the Great Divide”, than as just referring to the Rocky Mountains. As the Texas Eagle wound its way into the deserts of West Texas, visible out of the right side of the train were the El Paso suburbs, with their McMansions, above ground pools and 4x4’s, while on the left were the slums of Juarez, Mexico, looking like something from the 1850’s, the dichotomy neatly bisected by the man-made border and the train line.
The goal of these two troubadours, when they set out on their odyssey, was to show that, even though the golden age of passenger rail has passed, the ability of the train and the railroad to both unite and divide sections of American society is still alive and well in the American psyche, and that the songs of those times still have relevance today. I’d say they took us all along for that ride Wednesday night.
Purple Walrus Press contributor Eoin Ryan.
Purple Walrus Press contributor Eoin Ryan.