Exclusive: Billy Bragg & Joe Henry’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ video is a love letter to trains


Singer-songwriters and longtime friends Billy Bragg and Joe Henry hopped a train in Chicago in March and spent the next several days riding the rails on a 2,728-mile journey to Los Angeles, during which they recorded 13 songs referencing trains and railroad travel in one way or another.

The result is “Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad,” an album due Sept. 23 and which, indeed, was recorded aboard the train and at various stops along the way.

The Times is premiering a video they shot inside the Amtrak Station in Alpine, Texas, for Goebel Reeves’ song “Hobo’s Lullaby,” one of the most disarmingly endearing train songs ever written, and one inextricably linked with American folk music icon Woody Guthrie.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry's "Hobo's Lullaby"

The album, Henry tells The Times, “grew directly out of friendship — Bill and I having been ‘brothers’ some 25 years now — and a desire to move these songs from a perception of shelved nostalgia, back into the realm of common, useful and shared vocabulary.”

“ ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’ is a song I have known and loved since my mid-teens,” Henry said, “and though it was not written by Woody Guthrie — the man who, along with Lead Belly, was our patron saint throughout this project-= — it has long been reported to have been his favorite song; thus, we always associate it with him. 

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“We brought this song to bear in our process for a couple of reasons beyond that one,” he said. “It is a most beautiful melody to be sure; but more importantly, the song offers a glimpse not of people living on the margins of society, but of a downcast lot who nonetheless were inseparable from the fabric of this country at a particular moment, and remain so: those who must improvise a life beyond the hard lines drawn and forgotten by those of us who don’t know what it is like, truly, to be hanging on so tenuously to identity and dignity.”

The “Hobo’s Lullaby” track will be available starting Monday, Aug. 15, on iTunes as a free “Instant Grat” download for those who pre-order the album.

Other songs include Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” Jean Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind,” Hank Williams’ “Lonesome Whistle” and folk traditionals including “The Midnight Special,” “In the Pines” “The Rock Island Line” and “John Henry.”

The duo will be showcasing the album on a joint fall tour starting at the AmericanaFest running Sept. 20-24 in Nashville, and concluding Oct. 25 at the Palace Theatre in Los Angeles.

Of “Hobo’s Lullaby,” English musician Bragg writes in notes accompanying the announcement of the album, “The song entered Woody’s repertoire when he was broadcasting from Los Angeles on KFVD with ‘Lefty Lou’ [Crissman] in the late-’30s and became one of his signature tunes.

“With this project, we wanted to explore the transformative power that the coming of the railroad had on the lives of ordinary people by taking these songs back to the places that inspired their creation,” Bragg writes. “Traveling on the train and recording the songs as we went allowed us to both visit places that were important 125 years ago when the lines were laid, but to also explore the viability of the railroad as a means of transport in the 21st century.”

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