Rock Island Line The Song That Made Britain Rock: A magical mystery tour from a US train jingle to jazz, skiffle and The Beatles

The song Rock Island Line, is about a railroad. The tune moves like a train. Though the lyrics are more of an expression of rhythm and energy than anything poetic, it is, says Billy Bragg, “one of the most important songs in the history of British pop music”.

There will be those for whom the tune is a mystery. It will not figure in popular votes about the greatest British pop songs. It is not a Wonderwall, an Imagine or a Stairway to Heaven. It is not even a Rehab. Yet without it, none of those songs would have existed, at least in their familiar shape.

There is, of course, a men-in-sheds aspect to the exhumation of half- forgotten pop tunes, but even among the shed-men of rock, the name of Lonnie Donegan is not often heard. Did Lonnie make The Beatles and influence Johnny Cash? Up to a point, butin a pub quiz it is possible the Glasgow-born East Ender would more easily be identified with his novelty hit Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight)? or even My Old Man’s A Dustman, with its poetic reference to “gorblimey trousers” and its melody borrowed (it says here) from Stravinsky.

But Rock Island Line is something else. At the very least, it’s an excuse for Bragg to put on his best gorblimeys and follow the train tracks back to the source. Rock Island was the site of the first bridge across the Mississippi, connecting Iowa to Illinois, and the roots of the song can be found in what was little more than a jingle for the train company. It was written by Clarence Wilson, an engine wiper (or cleaner) at the railroad’s freight yard near Little Rock. His group, the Rock Island Colored Booster Quartet, performed the song in 1929.

From there, the route to the English skiffle boom — a punk-like DIY revolution that built the bridge between trad jazz and rock ’n’ roll — is complicated. The song collector John A Lomax had an interest in folk songs, and thought that a good place to find them would be prisons, because the men there were involved in organised labour, and less susceptible to outside influences.

Somewhere around this point, there is an argument to be had about the difference — and the overlap between — curation and cultural appropriation, because one of the men Lomax encountered at Angola Prison in Louisiana, was Huddie Ledbetter, who became better known as Lead Belly. This is not that documentary, though several of the participants — British folkies, trad players and skifflers — are at pains to point out that they were active supporters of the civil rights movement.

Put that aside. Let’s ride this train further. We arrive in post-war Britain, where the end of rationing is about to spawn a generation of teenagers. The trad jazzers, having copied the records of the New Orleans players, blow so hard that their lips go numb and have to take breaks. In the breaks, the breakdown groups play the blues on DIY instruments, fronted by a guitar.

They congregate in Soho, drink coffee from Gaggia machines and dream. And Donegan, who wasn’t so much a singer as a shouter, and who understood that the journey is more important than the destination, decides to mess with the geography of the song and make the trip his own.