Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, Union Chapel, London, 16th January 2017

Serendipity – it happens all the time, that accidental crossing of life’s tentative threads that seem to indicate something significant when a connection is made. Travelling in London by train one inevitably comes into contact with the free newspapers, and tonight the Standard is proclaiming the death of the £300K home. Seems there has been a steady decline in such houses, deemed affordable because a couple both on average salary who have scraped together a significant deposit can escape crippling rents by purchasing such a dwelling on a slightly less crippling mortgage. Not anymore. There’s only one part of London where the average house price falls into this category – Barking. Whether the Bard of Barking is aware of this I don’t know – but he was in London (with Joe Henry) to sing songs about trains. Mostly, as he explained, trains as metaphors – often, but not exclusively, metaphors for freedom. You’ll have heard the backstory to this musical project – Joe Henry and Billy Bragg crossed the USA East to West by train, hoping off at intervals to make field recordings of a series of train songs either on convenient platforms or in historical railroad related hotels along the way.  The purpose – to examine the American experience of the railroads, the cultural impact and the backstory to their construction – as well as taking songs from the 19th century forward into the 21st. It’s sort of a back to basics folk music concept, although as Bragg says several times across the night he sees a core of genre fluidity as much as some kind of sterile historical recreation.

The duo do, however, have only the one album of songs to draw on, which leads to a gig in two halves with alternating solo spots to fill the remaining hour: our itinerary is thus train songs, Joe Henry solo, refreshments cart, Billy Bragg solo, train songs and then pull into the terminus and good night everybody. The now traditional opener is Railway Bill – “he’s never worked and he never will” – which sets the tone about the American railroad songs: they’re about both freedom and living outside society’s norms.  They also, as Bragg notes, offer a myth of a road to a better life – and they loosely record the histories of those who made this escape route possible – so the steel driving man John Henry is “a metaphor for all the builders of the railroad”. There’s a lot of tradition in the song settings – introducing In the Pines Joe Henry states that whilst Lead Belly looms large across all the railroad songs, he and Bragg chose to sing an approximation of the Louvin Brothers setting, making it more redolent of gospel harmonies.  Also recorded by Nirvana, it’s a song that fits yet another theme of the gig – that folk song is a living tradition that grows and mutates, otherwise it has no point at all.

Where Billy Bragg had part apologised for an evening of railroad songs – this being what had been recorded after all – instead of a series of angry responses to politics on the grounds that he hadn’t seen Trump and Brexit coming, Joe Henry takes the chance to grapple with these issues in his solo set. Our Song, sung from the piano, was Joe Henry’s response to being chewed out by Harry Bellefonte for deliberately avoiding political or topical songs – here he is conjuring up images of a country falling back on past glories and lapsing into anger when it finds no comfort in the real blessings it’s still possible to count. It wasn’t written for the new Trump-order, but it fits the bill mourning that “This was our country / This frightful and this angry land”. Strong as his own songs are, nothing is stronger than his version of Allen Toussaint’s Freedom for the stallion, an anthem for civil rights “Big ship’s a sailing / Slaves all chained and bound / Heading for a brand new land / That some cat said he upped and found” that presciently warns not just once “they got men making laws that destroy other men / They’ve made money God it’s a doggone sin” but again “they’ve got men building fences to keep other men out / Ignore him if he whispers and kill him if he shouts”. In the pin-drop peace of the Union Chapel it’s a sober reflection on the way things are going.

Billy Bragg’s solo set pays tribute to Gregg Trooper – whose death had been communicated to Billy by Sid Griffin – with a rendition of Everywhere. American racism – this time against American’s with Japanese ancestry, over reaction, and the individual grief of death in war all melded together into a multi-faceted whole “Over here, over there / It’s the same everywhere / A boy cries out for his mama / Before he dies for his home”. There are some classic Billy Bragg songs – Between The Wars is heartbreakingly appropriate again “I raised a family / In a time of austerity /…/ And as times got harder I looked to the government to help the working man”. Didn’t we get past this? “Call up the craftsmen / Bring me the draughtsman / build me a path from cradle to grave / and I’ll give my consent / to any government / that does not deny a man a living wage”.  Apparently not. More than thirty years after the Between The Wars EP and this song could have been written yesterday. It gets a huge response – but here in the Union Chapel we’re safely in the embrace of the faithful, and any would be nay-sayers wisely keep their own council. It should still be a rallying call to decency – and perhaps we don’t need our beliefs confirmed, wearing badges is not enough as we all know, maybe what Billy needs is to give us more of a kick up the backside. And it seems he’s been thinking the same way as he introduces a new song, a work in progress, as his attempt to go from angry facebook “rants” to something more energising to action – it’s as poetic as any of his older political songs hinging on a stinging rebuke that addresses our sleepwalking ways into Brexit, and in the USA into Trumpian non-politics: “the sleep of reason produces monsters”. And, as he has done for a while, there’s also a moving rendition of Alanis Morissette’s Why we build the wall which just gets more and more appropriate as the days pass – what’s the wall for ? To keep out the enemy. Who are the enemy ? Poor people – those who selfishly want access to the education and health care we reserve for ourselves.

After such a rousing set it’s a little difficult to get the trains back on the track – but there are some fine moments in the last quarter of the gig. Hank Williams’ Lonesome Whistle see’s Billy Bragg growling like a train on a steep incline, but Hobo’s Lullaby is a gently swaying moment. Then after talking about his upcoming book on skiffle and how this shaped the music of the late fifties and transformed the sixties as the teenagers who’d copied Lonnie Donegan grew up to form bands like The Beatles, Bragg calls some from that original skiffle boom to help out on Midnight Special. It’s safe to say that few could have anticipated seeing Chas ‘n’ Dave at this gig – but by doubling the band size and adding some big piano chords they certainly helped to provide a lively closer. The single encore is a perfectly lovely Gentle on my mind. I still don’t know what this pair have got against City of New Orleans: maybe they are saving it for their next musical rail journey – Shine a light volume 2: North to South – Chicago to New Orleans.
You heard it here first folks.

Set List

Railroad Bill
The L&N don’t stop here anymore
John Henry
In the pines
Waiting on a train
In the early morning rain

Trampoline
Our song
After the War
God Only Knows
Freedom for the Stallion

[Interval]

Everywhere
Accident Waiting to Happen
Sleep of Reason (?)
Why We Build the Wall
Between the Wars

Railroading across the Great Divide
Lonesome Whistle
Rock Island Line
Hobo’s Lullaby
Midnight Special

Encore

Gentle on My Mind

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan’s music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That’s not much to ask, is it?

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