7 Means of Movement: Railroading
Jimmy Giuffre Trio, The Train and the River.
Joni Mitchell, Just Like This Train.
Ken Boothe, The Train Is Coming.
As the train skirted close in, the trees leveled out and he could see within the woodland the only place he had been truly intimate with in his wanderings, a green world shot through with weird light and strange bird cries, muffled in silence that made the privacy so complete his inmost self had no shame of anything he thought there, and it eased the body-shaking beat of his ambitions. Then he thought of here and now and for the thousandth time wondered why they had come so far and for what...Sometimes Roy had his doubts. Sometimes he wanted to turn around and go back home, where he could at least predict what tomorrow would be like.
At once there was this beaten gold, snow-capped mountain in the distance, and on the plain several miles from its base lay a small city gleaming in the rays of the declining sun. Approaching it, the train slowly pulled to a stop.
Eddie woke with a jump and stared out the window.
"Oh oh, trouble, we never stop here."
Bernard Malamud, The Natural.
A train is an unlikely figure for romance, no? It rattles, shudders and wheezes like a valetudinarian; in its early years, a train would be littered with cinders and stink of smoke, and even today train cars often carry a stale, burnt odor; it rarely leaves on time, and often breaks down; it trundles through harsh sections of towns, generally taking the tradesman’s entrance whenever entering a city.
Yet the world, for more than a hundred years, was in love with it: the train meant escape, power and freedom (recall the lines from "Folsom Prison Blues," when Johnny Cash is tortured by just the thought of a train rolling past his cell), yet it also was an agent of community, peopling cities, stitching together nations. For many people, the train was modernity: to see the world judder by from your window seat, or even just to watch a train roll past you, imposing itself upon the horizon, was to live in a time your ancestors could not have conceived. The train has never lost its promise of grand potential.
Hopper, Chair Car.
Train reverie: "The Train and the River" is by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, which consisted of Giuffre, who played baritone sax, tenor sax and clarinet, Jim Atlas on bass and Jim Hall on guitar. "Train and the River" was recorded as part of the CBS TV special, "The Sound of Jazz", which was also the last appearance together of Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Recorded 5 December 1957 in New York; on The Sound of Jazz. Here's the live broadcast; here's another version (with a trombonist, Bob Brookmeyer, replacing Atlas) from the 1958 Newport festival, which became the opening sequence of Jazz On a Summer's Day.
Train travelogue: "Just Like This Train," which has one of Joni Mitchell's most clever and evocative lyrics: as the singer endures a long, strange, chaotic train trip, she projects her life upon its walls and hears herself in the weary way it brakes; it's on 1974's Court and Spark.
Train spiritual: Ken Boothe's "The Train is Coming," from 1967, doesn't specify where the train is going--all that matters is the fact of its arrival. Boothe sings reassuringly and with grace, but it's clear he's going to be on the train when it leaves, whether you are or not. On The Bunny 'Striker' Lee Story.
The Morning of the First Engineer (in America)
Trevithick's circular railway, ca. 1810.
It is odd to think that fate has earmarked this hot Saturday morning in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, in August 1829. A market-day crowd gathers near the canal, jostling to see the barge now nudging upstream. A group of men, mainly shopkeepers and farmers, stand in a loose knot arguing about President Jackson, some using folded newspapers to fan themselves. It's going to be a brutal day--the canal already shimmers with heat. The barge slows. Murmurs, whistles, there it is, look there now. Laughs, too: the object of the hour appears to be a boiler attached to a set of wheels, and painted on the boiler's convex endpiece is a great red lion's head.
The Delaware & Hudson Canal Company has hired a young man, recently graduated from Columbia College, to test the oddity. He stands canalside, dressed like a parson, giving orders, some heeded, some cast aside by the team of workmen who surge around him. With a wheeze, the boiler is hauled off the barge; it dangles for a minute over the canal. A recalcitrant mule, sensing it is bearing its obsolescence, refuses to budge, until the teamsman flails its back with a whip. The ropes tauten, and the boiler is slowly hoisted over a set of iron tracks that lie parallel to the canal, tracks that extend straight for six hundred feet, then curve over a trestle built over the Lackawaxen Creek and run out into the woods for a few miles.
The boiler lands with a gentle thud upon the tracks. The young man argues with some Scotsmen, while a grandee from the Delaware & Hudson Co. talks loudly to no one in particular. Minutes drift, a half hour expires. The shopkeepers and farmers move to a nearby field, where they have set up a cannon, a relic of the War of 1812, to commemorate the event. After some fussing, they begin firing off rounds, setting the babies in the crowd to wailing. Then the cannon backfires and explodes, ripping apart the arm of the man standing next to it.
The young man is busy preparing the engine, watching as the pair of Scotsmen stoke the fire, checks that the steam is rising. His name is Horatio Allen, and the winter before he had sailed to Britain on behest of the Delaware & Hudson, to see the metal horses being run up in the North of England, and to buy one or three.
The Tom Thumb, 1830.
By 1829, the idea of steam-powered locomotive trains had been around for decades, and the concept of a railroad is actually centuries-old, though the manual railroads of Europe were essentially more efficient wagonways, with carts hauled over rails by oxen or mules. The invention of the steam engine, followed by Richard Trevithick's steam-driven tramway locomotive, first used in 1804, and the various innovations of George Stephenson meant that by the time Horatio Allen sailed to Britain, there were workable steam locomotive engines for sale. Allen bought three, two from Stephenson (which wound up being shipped to a New York warehouse and were eventually lost) and one built by John Rastrick, in Stourbridge, which went to Honesdale.
The Stourbridge Lion
Back in the Honesdale morning, Allen gallantly asks everyone to stand back from the boiler. He mounts the platform attached to it, grasps the throttle. He considers whether to start slowly or to roar off, considers that he might die in a moment, and so approaches death in style. He yanks the throttle down, the engine seethes, the machine jolts forward. Within a few seconds, Allen is over the creek, and he rolls along the tracks as the woods rush towards him. The crowd noise wanes. He rides into the woods until he reaches the end of the track, its terminus a thick axe-scarred pine that a workman couldn't fell. He looks up at the vague trace of sky visible beyond the summer-flush elms, savors the coolness still granted to the woods this morning. Then he puts the machine in reverse, and rolls back out.
Allen has become the first locomotive engineer in American history (and the first brakeman, passenger and conductor), and he never will run a locomotive engine again, though he lived to be 97 and spent much of his life on the railroads. Some fifty years later, Allen returned to Honesdale and walked one morning along the path where the tracks once were.
His engine, the Stourbridge Lion, is run a few more times, but the Delaware & Hudson directors aren't impressed with it. So the engine is run off the tracks and left by the side of the canal. It stands there for fourteen years, picked apart by souvenir hunters, rusted by the rains, until it is hauled to a repair shop, used to supply steam to a new stationary engine, then thrown in the scrap heap.
When You Hear The Whistle Blowin' Eight To the Bar
Josh White, No. 12 Train.
Paul Whiteman, Choo Choo.
Arthur Honegger, Pacific 231.
I worked out a few themes, but just at this time I had to appear in Boston...It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-bang that is so often stimulating to the composer (I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise), that I suddenly heard - even saw on paper - the complete construction of the Rhapsody from beginning to end.
George Gershwin, on the composition of "Rhapsody In Blue."
Each form of transportation has its own music, whether the pulsebeat of walking or the shaky waltz of a cruising ship. But the sound of the train--the brisk shuffle beat, a metal roar, crescendo and diminuendo, accompanied by rattle and clatter percussion, interspersed with whistle solos--was something utterly new, and it captivated musicians and composers immediately.
Philip Pacey's amazing site attempts to list every reference to the railroads in classical and popular music--to take 19th Century classical music alone, there's Meineke's Rail Road March, written to mark the appearance of the first passenger train in the U.S., or Johann Strauss' Railway Delight, which opened and closed with a whistle, or Berlioz's Le Chant des Chemins de Fer, or Rossini's Un Petit Train de Plaisir (Rossini hated the railroads, and so he depicted a train wreck and the passengers floating off to heaven, where presumably there are no trains).
Monet, Gare St. Lazare
And, of course, the train became the great reoccurring image of folk, blues and country songs, metaphor of metaphors, serving as the embodiment of hope, deliverance, despair, loneliness, triumph.
Three musical train evocations--one blues, one jazz, one orchestral:
The bluesman Josh White creates the sound of a train at full throttle simply through six guitar strings. "Number 12 Train" comes from a session White did for Moses Asch in 1944 that produced Folk Songs Sung By Josh White, a set of three 78 rpm records. On Free and Equal Blues.
Paul Whiteman’s “Choo Choo” is one of the first jazz records to evoke a train ride, laying the tracks for Duke Ellington compositions like "Daybreak Express." Written by Frank Trumbauer and Matty Malneck, a forgotten but influential figure in American music who deserves far more recognition. Recorded 25 July 1930; on Best of the Big Bands.
Freight train coming through outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, 1992.
And the Swiss-French composer Arthur Honegger's train study, Pacific 231, was written in 1923--it sets off with an opening whistle conveyed by the upper strings and woodwinds. Honegger, in a bit of a paradox, makes the "train" speed up by actually slowing the tempo, until the brakes are hit and the piece resolves into a final chord. This version was performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with Takuo Yuasa conducting; recorded in Wellington, New Zealand, on 23-25 January 2002; find here.
After World War II, the French composer Pierre Schaeffer took the next natural step in train sound composition: actually recording trains and using edited tape loops of the noises as the composition itself, such as 1948's Etude aux Chemins de Fer, which is based on recordings Schaeffer made at the Gare des Batignolles in Paris, with six engine drivers "improvising" for him, or so he said. A sample can be heard on this site.
Why Riding Trains With Cowboys Is a Dangerous, Dirty Business
Gunfights were common. We dreaded trips on cattle trains that included two or more different outfits. On such trains, the crews prudently stayed out of the caboose. Fights and gunfights started over trivial or fancied insults.
One fight that left our caboose a total wreck started when a cowboy remarked, "I don't like to play cards with a dirty deck." One of the rival outfit understood him to say "dirty neck." This man had been forced to make the trip without an opportunity to clean up, and he resented the implication that his neck was dirty.
When the struggle had finally quieted and the smoke cleared away, three cowboys were badly wounded. The fourth got his neck washed by the coroner.
Harry French, to Chauncey Del French, Railroadman, 1938.
Days of Steam
William Grayson and Henry Whitter, Train 45.
Tarheel Slim, Number Nine Train.
Big Joe Turner, Midnight Special Train.
Jackie Mittoo, Train to Skaville.
Uncle Dave Macon, Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train.
Vernon Dalhart, Wreck of the Old 97.
Johnny Cash, Wreck of the Old 97.
The Kinks, Last of the Steam-Powered Trains.
A little group of people who had settled about a mile out of Medford [Massachusetts] waited upon Superintendent Minot one day with a request that he stop the train at their settlement. He refused, thinking the venture would not pay, but they persisted in their demand and declared they would make him stop his train whether he wanted to or not.
Next day, as we began to climb a heavy grade just outside Medford, the wheels of the engine slipped. After a moment or two, we came to a full stop where several of the settlers were standing. They jumped aboard while the engineer got out to investigate the cause of our delay. He found that the track had been smeared with molasses.
Charles George, Forty Years on the Rail, 1887.
Have you ever played the board game Ticket to Ride? It is relatively simple: you begin with an empty map of the United States and Canada (or Europe, if you're playing there), and then draw cards that give you goals (e.g., link Vancouver with Houston, or New York with San Diego). Then, slowly and painstakingly, you build railroads across the country, trying to block or avoid your competitors, trying to link both ends of the country in a single, unbroken line.
This is essentially how the American railroad system developed from 1850 on, with pauses for various financial panics and the Civil War, during which most of the Confederacy's railways were destroyed (so the railroad kings got to build them again).
The railroads were never the province of a handful of dreamers, inventors and explorers. Instead they were, from their very beginnings, the product of great government largesse, lobbyists, venture capital, stock frauds, exploited illegal immigrant labor, greased palms, cheated Indians. The railroads first took root in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, as a way for ambitious cities like Baltimore to compete with the canal shipping traffic of rival ports. Then, by 1870, with the creation of the first trans-continental railroad, a web of railways began to extend across the expanses of the West.
Imagine the train as a sort of amoral demigod, thundering into unclaimed territories, bearing all forms of pestilence, human and animal, along with the U.S. Mail, and leaving behind a series of telegraph wires, saloons, jerry-built towns and eventually Congressmen.
Kandinsky, Murnau-View With Railroad and Castle.
Here are a host of railroad songs, some of which hail from the train's formative years, some not:
Henry Whitter, born near Galax, Virginia, wasn't the most talented player to come from that bluegrass-mad town, but he was one of the more ambitious, traveling up to New York on his own dime and hustling for recording contracts. Things finally broke his way when he teamed up with the blind fiddler William "G.B." Grayson--the pair made dozens of records between 1927 and 1929. "Train 45" was their most popular side, selling 50,000 copies in 1927 alone. Recorded in October 1927; on The Recordings.
Pity the poor station master's daughter
Tarheel Slim was born Alden "Allen" Bunn in 1924. He began performing as a member of several gospel groups in the '40s, including the Southern Harmonaires and the Selah Jubilee Singers, and went secular fairly quickly afterward, first with the Los Angeles-based Larks, a vocal group, then with an R&B group called the Wheels. By the late '50s, Bunn had become known as Tarheel Slim, as one half of a group called the Lovers (the other half was his wife, Anna Lee Sanford). In the '60s, Slim cut soul and electric blues records, and had he not died in 1977, he probably would've started rapping.
"Number Nine Train," Slim's sidetrack into rockabilly, featuring a vicious lead guitar by Jimmy Spruill, was released as Fury 1016 c/w "Lion Tamer" in 1959; on The Red Robin and Fire Years.
Feininger, Old Locomotive.
Big Joe Turner's "Midnight Special Train" is officially credited to "Gerald and Nugetre," which were Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun's pseudonyms. And "Midnight Special Train" is robbery in broad daylight, with Wexler and Ertegun wholly plundering Leadbelly's "Midnight Special," cherry-picking lines from a number of standard blues lyrics, and then stamping a copyright on the whole mess. That said, it's a still a swinging track, with probably Turner's last great vocal, and you have to admire the chutzpah of it all.
Recorded in New York on 20 November 1956; on The Very Best.
Jackie Mittoo and Roland Alphonso had been part of the Skatalites, and after that group broke up in 1965, they formed The Soul Brothers, which soon became the house band at Studio One, serving as the bedrock of a host of ska and rocksteady records. Mittoo also had a sting of hit singles to his name, one being "Train to Skaville."
On Last Train to Skaville.
As the train glided out of the station Theodoric's nervous imagination accused himself of exhaling a weak odour of stable-yard, and possibly of displaying a mouldy straw or two on his usually well-brushed garments. Fortunately the only other occupant of the compartment, a lady of about the same age as himself, seemed inclined for slumber rather than scrutiny; the train was not due to stop till the terminus was reached, in about an hour's time, and the carriage was of the old-fashioned sort, that held no communication with a corridor, therefore no further travelling companions were likely to intrude on Theodoric's semi-privacy.
And yet the train had scarcely attained its normal speed before he became reluctantly but vividly aware that he was not alone with the slumbering lady; he was not even alone in his own clothes. A warm, creeping movement over his flesh betrayed the unwelcome and highly resented presence, unseen but poignant, of a strayed mouse, that had evidently dashed into its present retreat during the episode of the pony harnessing.
Saki, "The Mouse."
Crash on the Berlin Overhead Railway, 1908.
Trains often wrecked, especially in the early decades of the railroads, whether by hitting cows, running off rails or just exploding. But unlike other transportation disaster songs, like the great doom-laden body of shipwreck ballads, songs about train wrecks tend toward the heroic, celebrating the engineer's prowess, marveling at his catastrophe.
Train wreck, metaphorical: Uncle Dave Macon's "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train," from 1930, refers to a contemporary scandal involving Tennessee governor Henry Horton and Nashville businessman Rogers Caldwell. Horton, via an unsavory character named Henry Lea, had okayed state funds being placed in stocks owned by Caldwell, who was getting state commissions without having to bid for them. Eventually the Caldwell businesses went bust, costing Tennessee $6 million ($68 million in today's dollars) at the height of the Depression. Macon's take on the scandal is about as close as American music came to Trinidadian topical calypso:
Well the engineer pulled the throttle
Conductor rang the bell
The brakeman hollered, 'all aboard'
And the banks all went to hell.
Recorded in Jackson, Miss., with Sam McGee on banjo guitar, 17 December 1930. On this soon-to-be-released new reissue from Smithsonian Folkways.
"death and destruction on the rocks below"
Train wreck, historical/mythical: The Old 97, an engine owned by the Southern Railroad, wrecked near Danville, Va., in September 1903, plunging off a 75-foot-high trestle, killing nine men. The Old 97's new engineer was named Joseph Broady. Running behind schedule, Broady decided not to cut speed as the train was hurtling downhill, which proved to be a deadly mistake, and, as the song written about the Old 97 describes it, Broady was found in the wreckage, his body scalded by steam, one hand still on the throttle.
Not long afterward, a Virginia yardman named David Graves George, who said he had actually seen the wreckage of the Old 97, wrote a poem about the wreck and put it to the melody of Henry Clay Work's "Ship That Never Returned," a Civil War-era ballad. He performed the song to a group of friends at a local barbershop. Or maybe he didn't. Fred Jackson Lewey, whose cousin allegedly was a fireman on the Old 97, claimed that he, along with Charles Noell, wrote "Wreck of the Old 97." And as the song spread across the country over the next two decades, it kept acquiring composers, including one F. Wallace Rega and Henry Whitter, who was credited as a co-composer for his 1923 recording of "Wreck of the Old 97."
Vernon Dalhart, having heard the Whitter record, made a version the following year that became an enormous seller for Victor Records, and so set off a number of tangled copyright lawsuits, to the point where the whole mess resembled Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The case, which went to the Supreme Court, was never resolved to anyone's satisfaction. Well, except Victor, which allegedly made more than $2 million from record sales and royalties.
Dalhart's version, with Carson Robison on guitar, was recorded in New York on 13 August 1924 and released as Victor 19427; on East Virginia Blues.
Johnny Cash's take was recorded in Memphis on 1 July 1957; on With His Hot & Blue Guitar. Much more information about the byzantine history of "Old 97" in this paper by Alfred Scott.
Last steam locomotive built for the Newfoundland Railway, scrapped in 1957
In May 1934, at the opening of the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, two petroleum-fueled passenger trains, the first of their kind, were rolled out to a cheering crowd. It was the beginning of the end of the steam age. A year later, diesel-electric locomotives began running on the Baltimore & Ohio, and, after a pause for World War II, the transformation of the U.S. railroad industry was completed by the end of the '50s.
In Britain, steam-powered trains endured a bit longer, in part because of cheap, locally-mined coal. But by 1968, when Ray Davies wrote "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains," the steam locomotive was nearly a memory. Davies considered the steam train's demise as one of the many casualties of the modern age, along with billiard games, virginity and brass bands. Recorded in London in October 1968 and released a month later on Village Green Preservation Society.
Pete Murray, On the 5:15.
The Who, 5:15.
Sheena Easton, 9 to 5 (Morning Train).
The train, unlike any other type of transportation before it, ran on a minute-by-minute schedule mapped out weeks or months in advance. For the first time, you could say you would arrive somewhere at exactly fifteen minutes past the hour. The downside was that people (most notably, bosses) began to expect you to be there at fifteen minutes past the hour.
The harried life of the train commuter, someone as tied to a train schedule as they were to a marriage or mortgage, was well established by the beginning of the 2oth Century. "On the 5:15," from 1915, was one of the first songs to address commuting, its miseries, and its alleviating graces (getting drunk when you miss your train, mainly). Though the recording is in pretty rough shape, take a listen, as the story--in which a man misses his train, gets drunk, gets taken to divorce court--is too good to simply summarize.
Of Pete Murray, who sang this track, I know nothing--he's so anonymous a figure that he's often confused with Billy Murray, the ubiquitous pop star of the first two decades of the past century. Released as Edison Blue Amberol 2561; available at the UCSB Cylinder Preservation site.
The Who's "5:15", from 1973's Quadrophenia, finds its Mod hero strung out on pills, hallucinating and raving on the train out to Brighton.
Sheena Easton's first hit single, "9 to 5," was changed to "Morning Train" in the U.S., so as not to confuse listeners with the recent Dolly Parton smash. The two records couldn't be further apart: where Parton sings about fighting for dignity in the workplace, Easton is either a kept woman or a pampered, slightly psychotic housewife lolling around the suburbs all day, desperately waiting for her man. Still, Easton, whose desperate search for a hit was depicted in the early British reality TV show The Big Time, sings the hell out of the song, going for broke toward the end, as the robotic Manhattan Transfer-esque backing vocals shuffle her along. On Greatest Hits.
Castes (from Conductors to Spike Drivers)
Mississippi John Hurt, Spike Driver Blues.
Chuck Berry, Let It Rock.
The Kentucky Ramblers, The Unfortunate Brakeman.
R.E.M., Driver 8.
The Carter Family, Engine 143.
Furry Lewis, Kassie Jones.
Clefs of Lavender Hill, Stop-Get a Ticket.
The Move, Wave Your Flag and Stop the Train.
An average train company, at least in the first century of railroading, was more hierarchical than the court of Louis XV.
As for the Chinamen, they do for themselves. They are unpleasant and repulsive pagans, but they are not given to rum. They are on hand when they are wanted. They work faithfully and steadily. The delegation from the Union Pacific were specially loud in their praise for the Chinese.
The music of the ready blows of the spike drivers falls deliciously on my ear. The steady advance of the ballasters excites me to lively cheers...
Anonymous newspaper correspondent, Alta California, 1-3 May 1869.
The lowest caste were those who came before the train could even arrive--the track-layers and spike drivers. First, surveyors would map out the route of a prospective railroad, and the contractors followed, purchasing whatever farmland they coveted, by hook or by crook. Once that was taken care of, an army of workers (including large numbers of Chinese and Irish immigrants) laid the tracks, accompanied by tent cities of prostitutes, gamblers, various criminals and bar owners.
John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" was recorded 28 December 1928 in New York and released as OKeh 8692 c/w "Blue Harvest Blues." On Avalon Blues.
Chuck Berry's section gang vignette "Let It Rock" is more a showcase for Johnnie Johnson's piano than Berry's guitar. It's one of Berry's lesser known but essential tracks, recorded 27 July 1959 and released as Chess 1747. On Gold.
A brakeman's typical winter
Upon the train itself, the lower classes included the firemen, called "tallow pots" in old railroad slang, whose grim job entailed climbing out onto the moving steam engine with a pitcher of liquid tallow and oiling the valves, as well as endlessly feeding the boiler, chopping wood, shoveling in coal. ("For pure drudgery, low pay, chronic danger and debased social standing, the job of firing a steam locomotive was hard to beat," Richard Reinhardt.)
Another dangerous, low-status job, but one with an element of style, was the brakeman. In the early days, brakemen would ride on top of train cars, skipping from car to car to set handbrakes, linking moving cars together, flagging other trains. They were routinely injured and maimed, and generally died like mayflies. So they lived hard--drinking, whoring, fighting. On their days off, brakemen would saunter into town, wearing new black suits, bell-bottom pants and high-heeled boots.
Herbert Hamblen, as a young man, started out as a brakeman and somehow lived to write his memoirs in the 1890s. After his first day on the job, Hamblen was befriended by a boy his own age, who had been on the railroad for about a year. "He admitted that while the talk about killing and maiming was by no means exaggerated, he hoped to escape that almost universal fate by being careful." A few months later, the boy was blown off the top of a train, his body found a while later completely frozen through.
Hamblen soon got his first true taste of brakeman life:
I was making a coupling one afternoon. I had balanced the pin in the drawhead of the stationary car and was running ahead of the other car, holding up the link. Just before the two cars were to come together, the one behind me left the track, having jumped a frog. Hearing the racket, I sprang to one side, but my toe caught the top of the rail. I was pinned between the corners of the cars as they came together. I heard my ribs cave in like an old box smashed with an ax.
"The Unfortunate Brakeman" is from 1928 and performed by the Kentucky Ramblers; on Early Music of Kentucky.
If the train has any sort of heroic figure, it's the locomotive engineer. In a mode of transportation once renowned for graft, filth, brutality and drudgery, the engineer stood in the popular imagination as a combination of ship captain, mounted knight and general emblem of raw power.
Three engineer songs:
R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" is from 1985. On Fables of the Reconstruction.
"Engine 143" is another train wreck song, centering on the engineer, George Alley, who was running the No. 4 train ("The Fast Flying Vestibule") on the C&O Railroad in October 1890, when the train gruesomely wrecked near Henton, West Virginia. The ballad was allegedly composed by a roundhouse worker from Henton soon afterward. Recorded by Maybelle and Sara Carter on 15 February 1929 in Camden, NJ; on Country and Folk Roots.
And then there's the greatest engineer in legend, John Luther "Casey" Jones. On 30 April 1900, Jones was running the Illinois Central No. 1 when, outside Vaughan, Mississippi, he plowed into a freight train stalled on the main track. While the engine overturned, and Jones was killed (his body found with one hand on the brake, the other on the whistle), the rest of the crew was spared.
Soon afterward, a friend of Jones', an African-American engine wiper named Wallace Saunders, wrote a ballad about him. The song was played in roundhouses along the Illinois Central line, and in 1902, the ballad, re-fitted with a new chorus and a few new lines, was published by T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton. (Saunders, unsurprisingly, got jack.)
Furry Lewis had lost a leg working on the railroad as a teenager, and so switched to performing music as a secondary career. His version of "Casey Jones" departs from what was becoming the standard folk rendition (probably in part to avoid copyright issues), using only about one verse of the original and then veering off into parts unknown. Recorded in Memphis on 28 August 1928; on Classic Railroad Songs.
Beyond Chicago we were under the protection of a friendly passenger conductor, who knew all about the country to which were were going and gave us a great deal of advice in exchange for our confidence. He seemed to us an experienced and worldly man who had been almost everywhere; in his conversation he threw out lightly the names of distant States and cities. He wore the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged. Even his cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk.
Willa Cather, My Antonia.
Finally, the highest caste, the aristocrats of the railroads, was the train conductors, though they were in essence glorified stewards who dressed as if they hailed from some decommissioned branch of the military. In the early days of the railroad, engineers and even firemen yelled "all aboard" and decreed when the doors opened and the train stopped, reducing the conductor to a mere ticket-taker, but in 1842 a conductor named Henry Ayres battled a German engineer named Jacob Hamel for supremacy.
Ayres had wired a bell to the engine cab, which he would pull when he wanted the train to stop, but Hamel kept cutting the cord. At last Ayres walked to the engine, climbed up and punched Hamel so hard that the engineer was knocked to the other side of the cab. After that, Hamel would stop the train whenever Ayres yanked the cord, and the conductors have ruled ever since.
Two frenzied dealings with conductors:
"Stop--Get a Ticket" is by the Clefs of Lavender Hill, which was the brother-sister team of Travis and Coventry Fairchild (whose real names were Joseph and Lorraine Ximenes), along with the brothers Fred and Bill Moss. The pounding handclaps make the track, but I bet whoever did them in the studio had sore palms for days afterward. Released on the local Miami label Thames in April 1966; on Nuggets.
The Move's "Wave Your Flag and Stop the Train," from 1968: The weedy boy is frantically trying to get the conductor's attention--his girlfriend took some really bad acid, and she's been freaking out and trying to throw herself out of the window. Right now she's weeping into her seat, and she doesn't know her name, let alone who her boyfriend is. All the nearby passengers look away in fear or disgust. This track was The Move's self-described attempt to make a Monkees record; on Omnibus.
Don't Forget the Porter
I have been asked quite often who are the best passengers and tippers…there is the working class, who work a year to take a vacation. They have itemized every little detail for the two weeks’ trip, and they never forget the porter. Newlyweds are also good. The groom tips fast and heavy, especially in the presence of the bride, and he is always in her presence.
Baseball players are the limit: most of them are vulgar and uncouth. They tear up the linen, destroy the pillows in battles and many walk out without even saying ‘thanks’ for the service…Among the most generous tippers of today are underworld characters. Drunks were also once among the best, but now, in this age of rotten liquor and bad beer, they’re only good to lose something--a shirt, a suitcase, or a shoe.
H. Nathaniel Hall, (a former porter), 1931.
I must say
To you all the time.
All my days
Climbing up a great big mountain
Of yes, sirs!
Rich old white man
Owns the world.
Gimme yo' shoes
Langston Hughes, Porter.
The Golden Age
Judy Garland, On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
James Brown, Night Train.
Glenn Miller, Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express.
I lunched in the restaurant car, and drank some vin ordinaire that tasted unexpectedly sour. The carriage felt hotter than ever on my return: and the train more crowded. An elderly man with a straw hat, black gloves, and Assyrian beard had taken my seat. I decided that it would be less trouble, and perhaps cooler, to stand for a time in the corridor.
I wedged myself in by the window between a girl of about fifteen with a look of intense concentration on her pale, angular features, who pressed her face against the glass, and a young soldier with a spectacled, thin countenance, who was angrily explaining some political matter to an enormously fat priest in charge of several small boys. After a while the corridor became fuller than might have been thought possible. I was gradually forced away from the door of the compartment, and found myself unstrategically placed with a leg on either side of a wicker trunk, secured by a strap, the buckle of which ran into my ankle, as the train jolted its way along the line...
At first the wine had a stimulating effect; but this sense of exhilaration began to change after a time to one of heaviness and despair. My head buzzed. The soldier and the priest were definitely having words. The girl forced her nose against the window, making a small circle of steam in front of her face. At last the throbbings in my head became so intense that I made up my mind to eject the man with the beard. After a short preliminary argument in which I pointed out that the seat was a reserved one, and, in general, put my case as well as circumstances and my command of the language would allow, he said briefly: 'Monsieur, vous avez gagné,' and accepted dislodgment with resignation and some dignity.
In the corridor, he moved skilfully past the priest and his boys; and, with uncommon agility for his age and size, climbed on to the wicker trunk, which he reduced almost immediately to a state of complete dissolution: squatting on its ruins reading Le Figaro. He seemed to know the girl, perhaps his daughter, because once he leaned across and pinched the back of her leg and made some remark to her; but she continued to gaze irritably out at the passing landscape, amongst the trees of which an occasional white château stood glittering like a huge birthday cake left out in the woods after a picnic. By the time I reached by destination there could be no doubt whatever that I was feeling more than a little sick.
Anthony Powell, A Question of Upbringing.
In the first half of the 20th Century, or to speak in Hollywood terms, from Twentieth Century to From Russia With Love (with a brief epilogue in the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, in which a train is a playground populated entirely by pretty girls and old people to be mocked), train travel reached its sophisticated height.
Early passenger train travel was a dire business. The passenger cars often didn't even have roofs, so that blazing cinders would rain down upon travelers, setting coats and umbrellas on fire, while the locomotive was so jerky that passengers were routinely knocked to the floor. In the winter, the cars were glacial; in the summers, broiling.
But by the 1920s, with the advent of air-conditioned sleeper cars, luxurious diner cars and smoother rails, the train was briefly the most glamorous and efficient way to travel in the world.
The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe railroad was one of the largest railroads in the U.S., linking Chicago with the West, down to the Gulf of Mexico and out to San Diego. (Oddly enough, it never directly linked with Santa Fe). Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren wrote "On the Atchison..." for the movie The Harvey Girls, in which it was sung by Judy Garland.
Recorded in LA on 7 September 1945; on Songs From Her Movies.
"Night Train" began as a horn riff, used in Johnny Hodges' 1940 "That's the Blues, Old Man," and also used by Duke Ellington, Hodges' primary employer, in a piece called "Happy-Go-Lucky Local." In 1951, another Ellington sideman, Jimmy Forrest, got an R&B hit by taking the riff, adding a long tenor sax solo, putting it all in front of what Al Pavlow called "a percussive strip joint backbeat," and dubbing it "Night Train."
"Night Train" soon became an R&B cover standard. There were a few sets of lyrics written for it, one in which a man laments his departed woman, another in which a woman is coming back to her man on the night train. But James Brown threw all that out when he took on the song. Instead, he turns "Night Train" into a rolling tour of black America's journey from the South to the North, checking off the stations, from Miami to Raleigh, from Richmond to Boston, while ending with New Orleans, "the home of the blues."
Recorded in Cincinnati on 9 February 1961 and released the next year as King 5614; on 50th Anniversary Collection.
Sheeler, American Landscape.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra's "Chattanooga Choo Choo," from 1941, is train travel so efficient that it seems like a dream. Travel from New York to Baltimore in the time it takes to read a magazine, then have some fresh-cooked ham and eggs while you watch the train gently glide through the South.
Recorded 7 May 1941; on 18 Greatest.
And while the quality of U.S. train travel has greatly declined since the Glenn Miller era (just the idea of riding cross-country on Amtrak sets my body aching), the European and Japanese rail systems keep the dream of civilization alive. The icily serene "Trans-Europe Express" is the title track of the Kraftwerk's 1977 album. With synthesizers serving as train engines, and a lyric featuring the immortal couplet: "Station to station back to Dusseldorf city/Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie."
Sidetrack: Freight Trains
Joe Ely, Boxcars.
Roy Acuff, Freight Train Blues.
Brownie McGhee, Freight Train Blues.
Once, taking a train into Chicago
from the west, I saw a message
scrawled on a wall in the railway yard--
Tommy, call home, we need you--
and for years I have worried, imagining
the worst scenarios. Beneath the message
was a number written in red chalk,
although at eighteen who was I to call
and at forty-five who is left to listen?
But Tommy, I think of him still traveling
out in the country, riding freight car
after freight car, just squeaking by
in pursuit of some private quest.
Stephen Dobyns, "Freight Cars."
Joe Ely's "Boxcars," written by Butch Hancock, one of Ely's former partners in the legendary Flatlanders, is from Honky Tonk Masquerade, from 1978.
Brownie McGhee took "Freight Train Blues," which he recorded in 1959, from a couple of versions--Trixie Smith's 1924 record, and Elizabeth Cotten's. Again on Classic Railroad Songs.
Roy Acuff's "Freight Train Blues" was recorded in Hollywood on 28 January 1947. On The Essential Roy Acuff (which, for whatever reason, includes the false start heard at the beginning of this track)
Lucille Bogan, I Hate That Train Called the M & O.
The Rolling Stones, Love In Vain.
Woodrow Adams, Train Is Comin'.
Gladys Knight and the Pips, Midnight Train to Georgia.
The Delmore Brothers, Don’t You See That Train.
OutKast, The Train.
Train stations always have served as stages for great departures--children leaving parents for the first time, lovers saying their last goodbyes, soldiers shipping off to war, outlaws skipping town before justice comes to them.
Here are a few songs in which the singer is left behind as the train pulls out of the station, or they're on board the train, watching the one they once loved dwindle into the distance.
The magnificent Lucille Bogan was perhaps the dirtiest of the great '20s blues singers (her greatest hits CD still gets an "explicit lyrics" warning sticker). Bogan's "I Hate That Train Called the M & O" was recorded in Chicago on 31 July 1934, and released as ARC 6-02-64; on Black Angel Blues.
Robert Johnson recorded "Love in Vain" in 1936, but the Rolling Stones, who made the song's finest cover version, only discovered the song via a bootleg tape of Johnson tracks, those that had not made the cut for the 1961 Columbia reissue LP King of the Delta Blues Singers. When the bootleg surfaced in 1967 or 1968, with tracks that included "Stop Breakin' Down Blues" and "Ramblin' On My Mind," Keith Richards was stunned. Most of all by "Love in Vain," which the Stones soon turned into a country song. Recorded in London in March 1969; on Let It Bleed. Live performance from 1972 here (for now.)
Woodrow Adams was born in Tchula, Mississippi, in 1917 and was a friend of Howlin' Wolf, Willie Nix and other musicians. Adams was one of the last of the true blues primitives--using a detuned guitar, scraping out sound with his slide playing. "Train is Comin'," a track he recorded for Sam Phillips that was never released, was taped in Memphis on 24 May 1952, with Sylvester Hayes on harmonica and Fiddlin' Joe Martin on rudimentary drums. On Memphis Blues.
"Midnight Train to Georgia" was originally titled "Midnight Plane to Houston," and first recorded by its composer Jim Weatherly, but Gladys Knight and the Pips changed the location to be more resonant and the mode of transportation to be more romantic.
"Midnight Train" is a heartbreaker of a song, with Knight choosing to give up whatever she has in LA to stay with her broken man, who's heading back South, trading in the world of dreams for the world of reassurance and hard limits. Knight's singing on this track really can't be described: it's dignified, tragic, full of weary knowledge yet still hopeful. She says more in her pauses than most vocalists do in words. The fade out, when Knight sings, with all the courage she can muster, "My world, his world/our world, mine and his alone/My world, his world/My man, his girl," still gets to me sometimes. On Gold.
The Delmore Brothers' "Don't You See That Train," recorded 17 February 1936, is on Classic Cuts.
And finally, OutKast's "The Train," from last year's Idlewild.
Bob Dylan, Slow Train (live).
Peggy Lee, Waiting For the Train To Come In.
Jimmie Rodgers, Waiting For a Train.
Brother Williams Memphis Sanctified Singers, I Will Meet You At the Station.
There's a little black train a comin'
Set your business right
There's a little black train a comin'
And it may be here tonight
Go tell that ball room lady
All dressed in the worldly pride
That little black train is comin'
Prepare to take a ride.
"Little Black Train," African-American folk song.
Finally, a quartet of songs in which the train is arriving, and sooner than you might think.
In 1979 and 1980, a born again Bob Dylan embarked on a 'gospel' tour, during which a typical audience exchange went as follows:
Dylan: Satan is called the god of this world. Anyone here who knows that? That's right--he's called the god of this world, and prince of the power of the air.
Someone (likely high) in audience: He sucks!
Dylan: That's right! He does! But anyhow, we know he's been defeated at the cross.
This ripping version of "Slow Train" is from a Toronto concert on 20 April 1980 which ought to be released one day as part of the "Bootleg Series," but probably won't be.
Peggy Lee's "Waiting For the Train to Come In," was one of her first and finest singles, recorded on 30 July 1945. On Best Of.
Jimmy Rodgers' hobo is a thousand miles from home, but he sees a thin trail of smoke in the far distance, and all is well. Does music get better than this? Recorded 22 October 1928; on The Essential.
And finally, "I Will Meet You At the Station" by the Brother Williams Sanctified Singers, from 1930, is one of the most joyous songs I know. First heard this one on Honey Where You Been So Long. On Spreading The Word.
Wave Bye to The Caboose
Sufjan Stevens, One Last Whoo-Hoo For the Pullman.
The O'Jays, Love Train.
In short any stop before the final one creates
Clouds of anxiety, of sad, regretful impatience
With ourselves, our lives, the way we have been dealing
With other people up until now. Why couldn't
We have been more considerate? These figures leaving
The platform or waiting to board the train are my brothers
In a way that really wants to tell me why there is so little
Panic and disorder in the world, and so much unhappiness.
John Ashbery, Melodic Trains.
Tell all the folks in Russia, and China too.
Special thanks: Amy, from Shake Your Fist, who provided a long list of essential train songs. Old Blue Bus also had an excellent train song post a while back.
Stops worth visiting: The Great Machines, Poems and Songs of the American Railroad, ed. Robert Hedin; Richard Reinhardt, Workin' on the Railroad, Reminiscences From the Age of Steam; A Treasury of Railroad Folklore, ed. B.A. Botkin and Alvin F. Harlow; John F. Stover, American Railroads.
RIP: Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007.
Edited, ten hours later. RIP: Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912-2007.