In March of this year, the British folk singer Billy Bragg and the American roots-music artist and producer Joe Henry boarded the Texas Eagle in Chicago, and rode the train along the longest passenger route in the country, through the American heartland to San Antonio and then west, paralleling the Mexican border, to Los Angeles.
As they traveled, they did something that train passengers don't typically do. They recorded train songs that span the railroad's heyday, from "Rock Island Line" and "Waiting For a Train" to "Early Morning Rain." They started at their point of departure, recording three songs in various locations in Chicago's Union Station, and then, as the train made scheduled stops along the way, hopped off the train, guitars in hand, to record in stations or trackside. They recorded in their sleeper car, and in San Antonio's Gunter Hotel during their only stopover. What resulted was "Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad," which will be released this month. Bragg and Henry will showcase its songs in a Boston performance on Oct. 2.
As Bragg related in a recent phone conversation, their undertaking had its genesis in a book project for which he was researching the 1950s revival in Britain of a bluesy subgenre known as skiffle. He noticed that much of the skiffle repertoire was train songs. "That got me looking into the roots of these songs. That then led me to realize that there's a whole load of railroad songs, much more than car songs or plane songs. Obviously the railroad had real, deep emotional hold on people before you built your interstate system and the car superseded the train."
His newly kindled interest led him to visit Rock Island, Ill., the site of the first railroad crossing of the Mississippi River, when he was participating in a photo-documentary project with American photographer Alex Soth in 2014. He continued following the "Rock Island" thread, and ended up at Rock Island Station in Little Rock, Ark.
"We went down there at midnight to play 'The Midnight Special' as the Texas Eagle left, and I played a few songs in the waiting room for some people waiting to get the train, who asked what we were doing. And when the train came, it stopped for, like, 20 minutes. In Europe, the train barely stops for five minutes."
It occurred then to Bragg that it would be possible to take the train, and when it stopped in a place like Little Rock, to get off, go into the waiting room, and record a railroad song, an approach that struck him as much more interesting than simply booking studio time and recording a bunch of songs. "We would actually bring the songs back to where they came from," he explains, and "make an album that was not about the railroad, but of the railroad, and try and take the listener on that journey by also recording the extraneous noises of the environments that we were in."
Bragg approached Joe Henry about the project: "He's an old pal of mine, and he has a real feel for American roots music." Henry signed on, and the two embarked on their adventure.
In a separate phone conversation, Henry suggests that an idea of this sort would almost have to come from someone outside of this country, someone "who has a little bit more of an aerial view about the significance of the railway to our country's evolution and mythology that we still lean into to tell us something about who we are." He says it was precisely the process that Bragg envisioned that attracted him: "to meet this in real time, and remind ourselves and anybody listening that all of this — not only the railroad as a technology, but as a cultural metaphor — is still vividly available to us to be engaged."
They decided on their repertoire beforehand (or most of it; "Gentle on My Mind" they stumbled upon en route), trading song ideas back and forth via e-mail and then convening for a few days at Henry's Los Angeles home before the trip. "We took everything that had remained alive on our pile between us and started singing them back and forth to each other to see if we could find our way into them," says Henry. He adds that they came to realize that they shouldn't shy away from the familiar or favor the obscure. "We're inviting people back to this shared language; it was about reminding ourselves and anybody listening that these songs are alive."
"The further you go into train songs, the more you understand that they convey all human emotion," Bragg observes. "I can only imagine that's because of the transformative nature of the railroad when it arrived and its continued importance and centrality to American life up until the 1950s. It was how people realized their aspirations or brought home their problems or got back to their roots."
And the railroad remains vital, he thinks. "Obviously we're dipping into a tradition in musical terms. But by going on the railroad itself, we're also trying to connect with that culture and that tradition, that experience, and making the case for it still being a viable culture and means of mass transport. We don't want it to be just a nostalgia thing. We want to say, we were there, it still works, check it out."
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
At the Wilbur Theatre, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $40-$55. 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.