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