I don’t really know who Joe Henry is (although I see that he has released 13 albums). I’ve heard his name mentioned a bunch of times, but I can’t really place him to any specific music. Billy Bragg, on the other hand, I know very well.
The two recorded an album this year. And the NPR blurb is pretty interesting:
Earlier this year, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry set off on a journey. They boarded a train in Chicago, bound for Los Angeles. Each time the train stopped for more than 20 minutes in cities like St. Louis and San Antonio, they’d grab their guitars, hop off, find the waiting room and record an old railroad song. The result of this journey is an album called Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad.
Their voices sound very different and as a result they play off each other very well.
The duo used Lead Belly as a jumping off point for much of this music. Bragg explains that the jumping off point for this music is a book he has been working on about when British pop music went from being jazz influenced to being guitar led. In 1956 Lonnie Donegan became the first Briton to get into the charts playing the Lead Belly song “Rock Island Line.”
On the second song “Hobo’s Lullaby” Henry explains, the railroad is a mythic poverty–railroads conjure a romance in all of us even if we’ve never ridden a passenger train. As they start, Bragg hasn’t re-tuned his guitar. He says it’s always him who messes up. But he usually plays solo, so “If I put something in the wrong key I just sing it in that key and hope no one notices–fortunately my audience… no one comes to hear me sing.”
As they are about to start, he says, “Sorry mate it was a beautiful intro.” Henry looks at him and says, “It was,” to much laughter.
Before the final song, Henry says he was listening to Lead Belly since he was 15. “Midnight Special” was a train that ran past Sugarland Prison in Texas. The story was if the train’s light shined on you as it swept across the yard, that you would be the next to get paroled.
Even though these songs are old,
This concept record could be seen as a nostalgia trip, but both Bragg and Henry will emphatically say that it’s not. These songs and this journey celebrate the modern railroad as a major economic engine and a still-vital form of transportation.
[READ: March 10, 2016] “Ghosts”
Danticat often writes about Haiti and the troubles that arise there.
This story is set in Bel Air–the Baghdad of Haiti. Children in the neighborhood enter art contests by drawing posters that say “It’s not polite to shoot at funeral processions.”
The protagonist is Pascal Dorien. He is a good kid who tries to stay out of trouble. His parents own a small restaurant which has the unfortunate location of being in the heart of gangland (his family lives in a nearby town which is a little safer). Luckily for them (sort of) the gangsters who make the restaurant their evening hangout are kind to the family and think of their place as their haven.
The family originally sold pigeons (both live and as meat) but then the gangsters started buying them to use in a ritual which involved drinking the pigeons’ blood mixed with evaporated milk. His parents hated this and eventually stopped selling the bird. Nevertheless the money they made for this ritual allowed them to expand and make even more money. Which they hoped would allow their children to flee Haiti for safer locations.
Pascal’s brother Jules had already done so. He married a woman in Montreal. Pascal was working as a news writer for a radio station and also studying computer programming.
He hoped to use his radio connections to create shows about the gangs of the area–a plea for peace that might help all of the sides understand each other. When Pascal pitched the idea to the radio station, the programmer said no. And then, a few weeks later the station began a show that was very similar–in which gang members and their victims agreed to meet and talk.
They had stolen his idea.
The gangsters knew of his idea and they were outraged on his part for the theft. They joked that maybe someone should teach the radio programmer a lesson.
Things go downhill both in the village and for Pascal after that. The ending seems to put people in their places, although it’s not clear exactly how bad things might be.