The Iron Horse, star of many a Western and a staple of American frontier culture, forging ever westward leaving in its wake communities enriched or split asunder. In cinema able to be the source of ribald humour as in Blazing Saddles or a carriage for depression era desperation as portrayed in Preston Sturges’ wonderful Sullivan’s Travels. Kerouac rode the rails, a brakeman for a time and Jimmie Rodgers was the singing brakeman. The Grateful Dead tooted along with Casey Jones, a far remove from the kiddie TV series starring Alan Hale, a series that was still being shown in the UK well into the late sixties. Did Billy Bragg watch this as a toddler? That we don’t know but Bragg certainly has the railroad bug, his love of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lonnie Donegan setting the points for this railroad Odyssey on which he is accompanied by his celebrated fellow hobo, Joe Henry.
Bragg and Henry, both keen to explore the tradition of railroad songs decided the best course for them was to hop on a train, guitars (and recording equipment) in tow and see where it took them. In this case they embarked in Chicago for a 2,728 mile ride to Los Angeles, a 65 hour long trip stopping at St. Louis, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine, El Paso and Tucson. At the stops they hopped off, set up and sang, on platforms, waiting rooms and concourses, then hopped back on. A great idea and one that is faithfully captured here, ambient sounds and all. Bragg and Henry both sound great and they work well together, in harmony or in support of one another, even Bragg’s yodelling on Waiting For A Train passes muster. The 13 songs, all plucked from an Americana railroad gazetteer (if such a thing can be said to exist) roam from pining ballads to raucous skiffle like numbers, from the familiar to the obscure. Rock Island Line and Midnight Special rub shoulders with Railroad Bill and Waiting For A Train. There are songs a century old and newer ones such as Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain, the latter the last song recorded as the disembarked in LA at 4:30 am with the dawn chorus heard chittering in the background.
Not a polished album but all the better for that with the recordings clear as a bell, audio verite if you like and a fine salute to those pioneers in song and ultimately the spike drivers and others who built these iron roads.
The website has an interactive map that discusses the songs recorded at each station along the way.