Billy Bragg, (seen here on the left), singer and songwriter, chats with Kevin Cooper about the passing of Leonard Cohen, his thoughts on America’s President Elect, his latest album Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad, and his current tour of the UK with Joe Henry
Billy Bragg is an English singer, songwriter and left-wing activist. His music blends elements of folk music, punk rock and protest songs, with lyrics that mostly span political or romantic themes. His music is heavily centred on bringing about change and getting the younger generation involved in activist causes.
Like many a British musician before him, he has made no secret of his obsession with the songs and the mythology of the Americas, not least those of his artistic and philosophical forebear Woody Guthrie. With his friend and collaborator, US singer songwriter and producer Joe Henry, he has made an album that focuses on the transformative part the railroad played in disseminating the songs that gave birth to the rock ‘n’ roll era.
In March 2016 Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, guitars in hand, boarded a Los Angeles-bound train at Chicago’s Union Station. Winding along 2,728 miles of track, the pair recorded songs while the train paused to pick up passengers. In waiting rooms and at the track side in St Louis, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine Texas, El Paso and Tucson, they set up their recording equipment, and performed classic railroad songs while keeping half an eye on the train and jumping back on board just before pulling out for the next town. After four days crossing the country, they pulled into Los Angeles at 4:30am, recording their final song in Union Station accompanied by the first chirpings of the dawn chorus.
The resulting album Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad features the perfectly matched voices of Bragg and Henry and captures the varied atmospheres of the environments in which they recorded the tracks.
Currently touring to promote this album, Billy Bragg took time from his busy schedule to have a char with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Billy how are you?
I’m good Kevin, I’m good.
Firstly, let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
And just how is life treating Billy Bragg at this moment in time?
Well, I have to say that the tour has been going well; the dates so far have been really great.
Before we go any further I have to tell you that you and I have met each other previously.
It was a few years ago now when The Who were playing at Wembley Arena.
Yes, I remember it well, they were playing Quadrophenia.
You were adamant that I was sitting in your seat but it transpired that you were in the wrong block (laughter).
Well, there you go (laughter). That’s me all over.
Swiftly moving on to a more serious and sombre note, we are all waking up to the sad news of the passing of Leonard Cohen.
Yes, that is very sad, really sad. Leonard was one of the great singer songwriters. When you think of all the people back in the 1960s who elevated singer song writing into something more than just a way to sell records to teenagers, then Leonard Cohen was, in my opinion, right up there. Over the last couple of years the renaissance that he enjoyed didn’t really do justice to the poetry that he bought to the craft of song writing.
Would you put him up there with the best?
Yes I would, very much so. I think that Leonard was a more spiritual songwriter than most. He looked the part; with almost a prophet like image even right from the very beginning. He never looked like that wirey, quicksilver character that (Bob) Dylan looked like or in fact the classic rock star image and I think that was because he wasn’t really of that genre. He was someone who was trying to use music to find a way to express the words that as a poet he had always written.
My passion is Motown and whenever anyone mentions great songwriters I immediately think of Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland and (Norman) Whitfield and (Barrett) Strong.
Yes, I totally understand just what you mean. They are all great songwriters as well, but I think that it is a different type of writing in the sense that theirs is great pop writing. As Berry Gordy once said “if you can’t say it in three minutes, then it’s not worth saying”. I personally think that there is something in that but Cohen kind of approached it from a different angle. He brought that much more, I suppose, a bit more depth to the art of song writing. Holland-Dozier-Holland have an amazing immediacy and a likening for classic hooks, whereas Cohen spent a little more time on his songs. Even his song Halleluiah, he didn’t even know himself what such a great song it was.
He even played it on a small Casio keyboard. It took John Cale to see what a great song it was and that was very often how these things worked out. For example, it was Judy Collins’ version of Suzanne that finally turned everybody onto Leonard Cohen.
A sad loss and he will be sorely missed.
Yes he will, he really will be missed.
Moving on, your latest album Shine A Light, I have been playing it now for a couple of weeks and I think that it is a unique piece of work.
That’s great, I’m glad to hear that.
Are you happy with just how it has been received?
I was particularly happy with the way that Joe and I were able to get it together. I rocked up at his house a week before the trip and even at that point I wasn’t absolutely one hundred percent convinced that our voices would work together, but let me tell you I was very pleased when they did. When they are taken on their own they are not particularly similar voices, but fortunately when you put them together something happens there that I think is more than the sum of the parts. I mean getting on the train itself and trying to execute it within the time allotted, that was something that was a bit of a roll of the dice. We did put in a couple of days at the end just in case we had to double back and pick up a few songs but the fact that we were able to do it all in one swoop I found really encouraging.
The fact that it all sounded fine and the fact that it all hangs together as a record, together with the way that people have responded to it, is always encouraging. Most people seem to be familiar with these songs but not over familiar with them. It was like we were reminding them of something that they hadn’t heard for a long time.
So let me get this right. In March this year you and Joe Henry, boarded a Los Angeles-bound train at Chicago’s Union Station in an attempt to reconnect with the culture of American railroad travel together with the music which it inspired. You travelled some 2,728 miles in four days, whilst recording classic railroad songs in waiting rooms and also at the trackside while the train stopped in order to pick up passengers. Did I leave anything out? (Laughter).
(Laughter) no, I think that you covered all the bases. Looking back at the project now it really does sound bizarre but for me it really was the most thrilling way to make a record. Instead of taking your time, strolling through it and coming back tomorrow if you don’t get it today, you are actually right there in the moment. Not only are you trying to get a good take, you are trying to get it before the train leaves. There is a certain amount of adrenalin involved in that, which keeps you on your toes.
You have mentioned Joe (Henry) so I have to ask why the two of you; was it not a project that you wanted to tackle on your own?
I think that you need a different perspective on something like this, a little like Mermaid Avenue. Let me say that it wouldn’t have been such a good record if I had made it on my own. It needed Wilco to come in there and put their perspective on the project. With Shine A Light I have to tell you that Joe is a really interesting character; he is both a songwriter and a producer so he brings those skills to the table immediately. Also, he is a great arranger of songs and we needed to do something that made these songs a little bit our own. Something that gave us a little bit of purchase on them rather than simply doing cover versions of the songs. So he was the ideal character to do it with. The good thing is that he is a really great guy as well and I knew that he would understand the concept; I knew that he would get it straight off.
How did the other commuters react to you?
To be honest with you there were not a huge amount of them. For example, when we were on the train travelling from St Louis to San Antonio we were on the only passenger train that day. On the second leg of the trip between San Antonio to Los Angeles there was only one passenger train every other day so there weren’t a huge amount of commuters either getting on or getting off. We found ourselves in some beautiful huge stations that were built to deal with thousands of people and there would be at most a dozen people sitting there waiting to get on a train. Let’s just say that we didn’t have much problem finding a space to set up our little microphone. You know a couple of guys playing guitars in a railway station isn’t that big a deal either here in the UK or over in America. So no one really gave us any grief, or much attention really.
I asked you that because at the end of John Henry you can actually hear people clapping.
That was the smokers from the train. Joe and I had been talking to them over dinner and so they thought that they would come and see what we were doing. I think that we did five takes there and they only clapped the first one, the rest of the time they couldn’t be bothered. So I have to say that I think that is ironic clapping.
Would it be fair to say that the majority of the songs on the album were recorded in just one take?
All of the songs on there are all live takes. However, if we had the chance to do more than one take we would play one in order to get the sound levels right and then play another one. Usually we had enough time to have two takes of each song. Sometimes we would have a few more depending upon where we were and just how long the train was going to stay there.
We have all seen pictures of Grand Central Station in New York looking like a cathedral, but what were the stations like that you were recording in?
Some of them are beautiful huge buildings, whilst others are not much bigger than a hotel room. Depending upon where you are, obviously the bigger cities would have much more impressive railway stations but some of the smaller places such as Alpine in Texas was just a small bare room with a bench in the middle of it. In fact that was where we recorded Hobo’s Lullaby.
Where did your love of American railroads come from?
I think that we all had that romantic sense of the railroad; even the Americans have a sense of romance even if very few of them actually use them. It is one of those things like the old west isn’t it. You have that image of the big American railroad in your mind and if you go to the United States of America, as I do very often with work having been over there twice this year already, you very often hear in the distance a train on the railroad. You never actually see them because they are out on the edge of town but you hear them all of the time and so they are always there. Although very few passengers actually go on the railroads outside of the North East corridor, America puts more freight on the railroads than any other industrialised nation. So the train is absolutely key to the American economy but people don’t use it for passenger transport.
Why do you think that it?
Well back in the 1950s they built the interstate network and then in the 1960s air travel became available to everybody. Amtrak who are the American version of British Rail is an anomaly in American companies because it is actually owned by the government. It is terribly underfunded because the Americans simply don’t agree in public funding for things. So you find that the railway stations are grubby; the trains are not up to 21st century standards, and nobody is interested in the idea of building a new high-speed rail network. There are so few passenger trains that they have to give way to freight trains. In fact a friend of mine did the same trip and he got into Los Angeles twenty-four hours late, which is incredible when you think about it. The American passenger train network is in a pitiful state.
Was the project a joint idea or was it something that you came up with and had to do?
Yes it was, it was all my idea. For the last couple of years now I have been writing a book about the period in our cultural history when British pop music went from being jazz based to guitar led. That all hinges on Lonnie Donegan having a hit with Rock Island Line in January 1956. Donegan was the first British artist to get into the charts playing a guitar. That in turn then kicked off the whole skiffle thing which then leads to The Beatles and everything else that happened in British music back in the 1960s. It basically has its roots in skiffle right up to Mott The Hoople and Dr. Feelgood. So in writing that book and trying to put skiffle into its proper context in our culture, I found myself listening to a lot of railroad songs.
That started me thinking about why there were so many railroad songs and how often the train is a metaphor for something in the song rather than literally being a train. If a car passes through a song it is just a car and someone is driving it or a plane, it’s just a plane. But a train can be many different things, and have many different meanings and I found that very interesting.
You mention Lonnie Donegan and I always feel that he never received the credit that his work deserved. Most people will only remember him for songs such as My Old Man’s A Dustman and Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?).
Yes, you are totally correct but I am hoping that I may be able to challenge that idea with this book that I am writing. By putting skiffle into its context and by telling people that Donegan was the first British artist to get into the charts playing a guitar then people might finally begin to realise his importance.
Is this project something that you would be happy to do again?
Yes I would, I would most definitely tackle it again.
Who chose the songs?
The final choice of songs was made between the two of us. Originally I had quite a few Lead Belly songs which came out of that skiffle thing; in fact skiffle should have been called Lead Belly music. It was Lead Belly’s repertoire that Lonnie Donegan was playing, things like Midnight Special, Rock Island Line, In The Pines and Railroad Bill. These were all songs that Lead Belly had recorded. It was those songs that were the basis and then Joe and I would think of other songs that we thought would fit. If we thought that we could do a decent version of them then we would include them.
You have briefly mentioned the tour. You are coming to the Playhouse here in Nottingham on Thursday 17th November, what can we expect?
Well firstly there is no support, it is me and Joe from the kick-off. We start off by playing half a dozen of the railroad songs and explain a little bit about the journey and then Joe will play some of his own songs. Then we have an interval and after that I come out and play a few of my own songs. During my set I really get to grips with recent developments; shall we say that in inverted commas. Recent developments on both sides of the Atlantic I might add and then Joe will join me once again and we take it home together. It runs for about two and a half hours including the break and it is a lot of fun. I have really been enjoying it, it seems to run well.
As you say you spend a lot of time over in the States, you are known for your strong political views and the fact that you are not frightened about speaking your mind. So I have to ask you, have they chosen the right person to be President elect?
Well, I don’t think so, simply because a lot more people voted for the other person than voted for him by the look of things. If you take today, just today you know that if this had been a week ago President Obama would have Tweeted something about Leonard Cohen. He would have realised that there is importance in that and that it was something worth Tweeting about. All that Trump is Tweeting about today is how unfair it is that people are protesting about him. That’s the sort of thing that you would expect from President Erdogan in Turkey. I don’t think that Trump understands the role that he is about to take on. I think that he is going to be baffled.
Imagine what is going to happen when he has to sit down and talk to Angela Merkel about issues. I have to say that I already miss President Obama because of the quality of service that he bought, never mind what he achieved, just the dignity that he bought to the role. Now it’s like, I don’t know, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time with everything else that is going on around the world. So yes, I think that there is some turbulence up ahead and that we should all fasten our seatbelts, belt ourselves in and get ready to do what we can to mitigate the circumstances that we find ourselves in.
What worried me is that out of all of the billions of people in America, were these really the best two that they could pick?
Yes, I know what you are saying but that just goes to prove that the system over in America is broken. The other thing is that the American political system has been broken for quite a while now. It has not really functioned properly since the days of Bill Clinton. There is far too much money involved now and the politics are far too oppositional. I think that everyone knows that and now that it has thrown up this anomaly shall we say, that being the nicest thing that I can say today, then maybe they will do something about it. Maybe they will introduce an electoral system that reflects the popular world and the various parties in there.
On that note Billy let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been great and I hope to see you at some stage on the tour.
It’s been great Kevin, and I look forward to seeing you. Just make sure that you are in the right seat and not sitting in the wrong block. All the best.