Hear Billy Bragg and Joe Henry’s Train Song ‘Midnight Special’
Tracked during a 2,728-mile railroad trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, Shine a Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad finds folksingers Billy Bragg and Joe Henry teaming up for an album of acoustic, harmony-heavy duets. The railway looms large throughout the project, pulling triple duty as the singers’ muse, transportation and makeshift recording studio. Filled with covers of train songs that were first popularized by Jimmie Rodgers, Leadbelly, Hank Williams, the Carter Family and other American icons, Shine a Light does exactly what its title claims: refocus attention on the machines that not only helped colonize America, but played an immeasurable role in shaping the country’s blues and folk music, as well.
“We want the noise; we want people to listen to this record and be with us on the journey,” Bragg tells a railroad station employee in the above clip, which shows the two musicians recording their album’s first single, “The Midnight Special,” on a train depot balcony in St. Louis. Footage from the rest of the pair’s cross-country journey fills the video, too, showing Bragg and Henry recording their album’s songs in hotel rooms, train cars, loading docks and lobbies. The entire process took four days, with the album’s final track recorded outside Los Angeles’ Union Station at dawn, with birds chirping in the background.
Although first recorded in 1926 by Pistol Pete, a member of the western group Otto Gray and his Oklahoma Cowboys, “The Midnight Special” is usually attributed to Leadbelly, who recorded his own version of the song while serving time for attempted homicide at Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm. Bragg and Henry honor the song’s acoustic roots, with their thick harmonies and modern-day microphones serving as the only major upgrades to a song that’s been part of the American catalog for nearly a century. The rest of Shine a Light follows a similarly old-school approach, with the album hitting stores September 23rd.
The singer-songwriters will launch a tour in support of the album in September, beginning with a pair of shows at AmericanaFest in Nashville.
Here’s the track list for Shine a Light:
- “Rock Island Line” – Traditional (Recorded by Lead Belly, Lonnie Donegan)
- “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” – Jean Ritchie
- “The Midnight Special” – Traditional (Lead Belly)
- “Railroad Bill” – Traditional (Riley Puckett)
- “Lonesome Whistle” – Hank Williams
- “KC Moan” – Traditional (The Memphis Jug Band)
- “Waiting for a Train” – Jimmie Rodgers
- “In the Pines” – Traditional (Lead Belly, The Louvin Brothers)
- “Gentle on My Mind” – John Hartford (Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin)
- “Hobo’s Lullaby” – Goebel Reeves (Woody Guthrie)
- “Railroading on the Great Divide” – Sara Carter (The Carter Family)
- “John Henry” – Traditional (Doc Watson)
- “Early Morning Rain” – Gordon Lightfoot
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