Billy Bragg and Joe Henry | Union Chapel | 8 October 2016
“I don’t have any songs like that,” deadpans Joe Henry, returning to the stage as Billy Bragg ends a particularly emotional rendition of ‘There Is Power In A Union’. The rousing anthem is the finale of an intense 25-minute solo set that finds Bragg weighing in on Brexit, Trump, and the Calais Jungle between in-your-face songs like ‘Accident Waiting To Happen’, Occupy London anthem ‘Why We Build The Wall’, and Woody Guthrie’s ‘All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose’.
Earlier, during his own solo slot, Henry illustrates his disillusionment with the United States – “I’m an American abroad on election day, looking for asylum,” he chuckles – with a more restrained approach. A stripped-down ‘Trampoline’, cerebral ‘After The War’, weighty ‘Odetta’, storytelling masterclass ‘Our Song’ (“This was my country/ This frightful and this angry land”), and Allen Toussaint’s ‘Freedom For The Stallion’ may lack Bragg’s swagger, but are just as politically charged.
It’s these similarities – and, more importantly, differences – that ensure their collaboration works so well. Earlier this year, the pair set out on a 65-hour 2728-mile train journey across the US, recording classic railroad songs at stops along the way. The resulting album, ‘Shine A Light – Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad’, forms the heart of tonight’s performance, the two singers duetting on timeless standards immortalised by the likes of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams.
But this is no nostalgia trip. “We’re not looking back on a tradition,” says Henry early on, “we’re joining it.” And they do so with as much respect as rejuvenation. Accompanying each other on acoustic guitars, while their voices intertwine with the ease of two men who’ve known each other for almost 30 years, the musicians embark on a sometimes uplifting, sometimes heart-wrenching, always sublime “campaign to make Americana great again”.
And with each song accompanied by a story – either from the history books or their trip – this is as much an informative travelogue as it is a concert.
So, it turns out, ‘Midnight Special’ is about Sugar Land Prison inmates believing that, if the eponymous train’s light shone into their cell, they’d be paroled; ‘John Henry’ pays tribute to the men who laid the tracks in the 1870s; and Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’ mourns the demise of rail travel.
But, Bragg and Henry emphasise, these aren’t just songs about locomotives and steel tracks. Once a symbol of aspiration, hope, and escape, the train was a metaphor for freedom and possibility. ‘Railroading On The Great Divide’, for example, visualises the separate worlds on either side of the US-Mexican border, while Guthrie’s ‘Ramblin’ Round’ could be recounting the refugee experience today.
At a time when our civil liberties are under threat, Bragg and Henry are pointing out that these songs from a bygone era simply cannot be forgotten.
- Billy Bragg and Joe Henry return to Union Chapel on 16 January 2017.