Obsessed, Part II: Trains
The Story So Far:
In Part I, Graham picked up a scent of obsessions in rock music and got on the trail… It started with words, but he stumbled over something bigger.
He really should pay more attention to where he’s going.
I didn’t know where I was going, at the time.
Well, there you are then.
If you’re quite finished…
Heh! It’s your train of thought!
See what I did there?
A question for our readers: Which came first – “travelling by train” as a theme in popular music, or actually travelling by train? Surprise! The earliest noted, “Carrollton March,” dates back to 1828 – even before there were any public trains in the USA. Trains quickly become a major theme in popular musical culture – Wikipedia lists over 1,000 songs about or featuring trains. There seems to be something about the universality of the experience of travel – and of the particular rhythmic, squeaking, squealing quality of train travel in particular – that lends itself to story-telling, and even to deeper, more poignant meanings – the train as metaphor.
The idea of the journey lends itself to notions of departure and loss – (“Last Train To Clarksville,” the Monkees’ …
well - strictly speaking Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart’s ’Last Train To Clarksville - but I suppose that’s another thing? altogether?
… Vietnam War protest song, about a boy leaving for the war who may never return)
and of returning and regaining – “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sisters.
Sorry - Mack Gorden and Harry Warren
The train is associated with heroism and hardship – (the original recording of Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line,” taken from a prison farm in Arkansas, in 1934)
OK - I’ll go with that … ‘original recording’ …suffice to say I don’t intend to go entry by entry - but - we should not forget the writers. Nothing wrong in celebrating the performers, but writers need credita aswell
.. bitter struggles (Joe Hill’s “Casey Jones – Union Scab”)
– pathos and drama (“The Hobo’s Last Ride” – trad sung by Hank Snow.
and “Ghost Trains” also by Hank Snow, which may sound familiar…)
– disaster (“The Wreck Of ’97”, here by Boxcar Willie)
and almost-unspeakable tragedy, as in Tom Paxton’s quiet Holocaust remembrance, “Train To Auschwitz” …
(not forgetting Ofra Haza’s “Trains Of No Return” on the same topic).
But the same notion of journeying and movement can also speak to immense personal redemption, as in Tom Waits’ “Down There By The Train”.
Perhaps all the above is why musical artists of all ages and (almost) all genres have taken on the theme.
Big Bill Broonzy’s “South Bound Train” is an early one …
In jazz, there’s Coltrane’s “Blue Train”
… and Duke Ellington’s “Take The A Train.”
In the Country genre, Travis Tritt (with Charlie Daniels), “South Bound Train.”
In the 60s, Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song.”
Later still, Billy Bragg’s “Train Train”
and Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express.”
and even later, The Notting Hillbillies (Mark Knopfler) – “Railroad Worksong.”
There’s even one from Japanese punk band The Blue Hearts – “Train-Train.”
Most recently, there’s the strange and uncredited “Trains – The Rap Song” – one of the very few examples in rap.
Hard to find a rap song about trains. Searching on Trains and Rap does not bring up what you might expect… That might be a commentary in itself, as the old triad of “Trains And Boats And Planes” shrinks in the common experience to just one.
Maybe one of the greatest contributions to popular music is, strangely, not on the list. But we surely could not forget the granddaddy of rock, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode”, which attributed the rock beat to the rhythm of the train (here live in 1958) and launched rock and roll out of its country origins …
despite the damage done by the likes of the (also-unlisted) Lord Rockingham’s XI’s “Blue Train” (featuring the now almost-forgotten female rock keyboardist Cherry Wainer.)
Which is all sufficient to derail this Chap’s train of thought. Perhaps it’s just as well.