Billy Bragg travels back through the primeval swamps of skiffle and beyond. TV review by James Woodall
If you were a fan of “Rock Island Line” when it became a pop hit, you’d have to be at least in your mid-70s now. In 1956, Paul McCartney heard Lonnie Donegan perform it live in Liverpool, and Paul’s rising 77. How many below that age know it is moot, though that doesn’t necessarily disqualify it from the hour-long documentary treatment. For blues lovers, it’s a benchmark. “Rock Island Line” dates from the late 1920s and was first recorded in 1934.
Billy Bragg dependably and articulately fronted up this BBC Four history of the song, a protest paean to, or (as it might once have been called) a Negro spiritual about, a railroad network begun in the mid-19th century. Trains eventually steamed to many points west, south and north of Chicago – Rock Island sits west of Chicago, on the east bank of the Mississippi.
Those first recorded voices of the song belonged to black prisoners in Arkansas, way to the south. Key here was that another erstwhile convict, Huddie William Ledbetter – aka Lead Belly, who was violent but musically hugely influential on the 1950s and 1960s: Dylan references him on his first album – was present at the recording, clocked the performance and made the song his own. He died in 1949. Continue reading →
One of the impressive things about truly original and important artists – Bob Dylan, say – is their ability to reinvent themselves continuously without ever losing track of the thread of their own unique sonic identity. Every second of every great Dylan album could only be Bob Dylan. The difference between Dylan songs in various periods is vast, yet the unifying themes, the lyrical and musical echoes, the sly references that link, for example, One Too Many Mornings to Tangled Up In Blue to Caribbean Wind and beyond combine to produce a body of work so self-sufficient, so pulsating with its own life, that it is practically an ecosystem.
When former Trembling Bells drummer and songwriter Alex Neilson released Vermillion, his first album under the Alex Rex nom de plume, more than one reviewer mentioned Dylan. At the time, the comparison might have appeared superficial: sure, songs like God Make Me Good (But Not Yet) and Postcards From A Dream nodded towards a vaguely Dylanesque sound, one in which Blonde On Blonde, Nashville Skyline and Desire existed simultaneously, but weren’t there fresher, more interesting things going on in Neilson’s songs? In hindsight, and with a full overview of his songwriting career at hand, it seems extremely perceptive
This becomes ever more apparent when listening to the latest Alex Rex album. Just as on Blonde On Blonde you might find a snappy and brutal takedown of the singer’s former lover next to a nostalgic love song to his future wife, on Otterburn you will experience demented guitar-driven odes to masochistic sex rubbing shoulders (and other body parts) with the saddest and sincerest of elegies. And Neilson is unafraid to delve into his own musical past to come up with those often uncanny musical echoes: Otterburn’s last track, Smoke And Memory (which I will talk about in more detail later) is almost a musical mirror image of Seven Years A Teardrop, the song that closed Carbeth, the first Trembling Bells album, almost exactly ten years ago. Continue reading →
Fifteen years after taking a short break, Sunderland-based folk singer Bill Jones is back on the UK folk scene, with a new album – Wonderful Fairytale – due for release in May 2019.
Bill was a prominent young folksinger on the UK folk music scene from 1999 – 2004. During this time Bill released three studio albums, one live band album, and two EPs (all still available via links on this website). Bill also toured UK-wide and also across Europe, America and Japan