• Simon Birdsey

Reinventing the Album

Folksters Frank Turner and Billy Bragg make the most of modern technology


By accident I've stumbled across two albums that add a new twist to traditional folk storytelling.



You might not have heard of Frank Turner. He's an English folk punk singer-songwriter who's possibly best known for performing at the pre-show for the London 2012 Opening Ceremony. I knew that he had a podcast but I hadn't realised that it was in support of his new album 'No Man's Land'.


The record draws attention to the lives of 13 "fascinating women" whose amazing lives were overlooked due to their gender. They include Byzantine princess Kassiani, Huda Sha'arawi, Nannie Doss, Nica Rothschild, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jinny Bingham, Dora Hand and the CPR training manikin Resusci Anne.


'Tales' From No Man's Land', which is the title of the podcast, goes into much greater detail. In it Frank explores the stories of those figures with experts, fellow performers and family members as well as discussing the process of writing the songs.


I remember a quote from the Cure's Robert Smith saying "I have tried to write songs about something other than how I felt but they're dry, they're intellectual, and that's not me."


I feel that Frank really pulls it off though and he should be applauded for his meaningful choice of subject matter. How he deconstructs the way in which the album came together is a great insight for anyone interested in music and, when I've listened to the record by itself, I feel that it holds together really well. It doesn't feel dry or intellectual and I found myself listening to the lyrics more closely because of the things that I'd picked up from the podcast.


'Shine a Light' by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry was released in 2016, although I've only just become aware of it. The fascinating thing about it is that all the recordings were made on the railroad between Chicago and Los Angeles.


The videos on Bragg's Youtube channel of the pair performing in waiting rooms and trackside is mesmerising.


The intention of the album was to "reconnect with the culture of American railroad travel and the music it inspired."They undertook a 2700 mile, 65 hour train ride recording songs that "reflect the railroad's impact on the nation's social and cultural life."


Woody Guthrie's 'Hobo's Lullaby' was captured at an Amtrak station in Alpine, Texas; the folk ballad 'Railroad Bill' at St Louis Gateway station and 'Lonesome Whistle' by Hank Williams in a sleeping berth near Whistle Junction, Missouri.


I'm not a huge folk fan but I loved the idea of the trip and the way in which the songs are performed really drew me into that world. I was impressed by the musicianship of Joe Henry in particular and I would have liked to have seen even more of their double act on camera.


I watch Glastonbury every year and I know that Billy Bragg is a regular fixture, so it was good for me to learn a bit more about his work.


With both albums I feel like I've learned a lot and the creative way that they've been produced has given me food for thought about what an album is. Not that I'm likely to be producing my own any time soon, but I've just started a job where I need to present information in innovative and engaging ways. So, hopefully they can help to get me into the mindset of thinking more laterally.


"I'm not a huge folk fan but I loved the idea of the trip and the way in which the songs are performed really drew me into that world."

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