What is it about trains that makes people want to sing songs about trains?
“The development of railroads was one of the most important phenomena of the Industrial Revolution. With their formation, construction and operation, they brought profound social, economic and political change to a country only 50 years old. Over the next 50 years, America would come to see magnificent bridges and other structures on which trains would run, awesome depots, ruthless rail magnates and the majesty of rail locomotives crossing the country.” – http://www.ushistory.org/us/25b.asp
I’ve written and rewritten an opening paragraph here about four times. I keep erasing it, but this is probably three posts worth of ideas. I’ve tried to talk about the age of America and how our mythological figures rely not on 2000’s years+ of heroic figures. How our mythological figures are pretty recent and a hell of a lot of them are cowboys. Then I wandered into the importance of the Transcontinental Railroad in the economic devlopment of America. Then I wandered into something else. Really, the whole point I wanted to get to is, have you ever thought about how many great songs there are about trains?
Some of my favorites and a sample of their lyrics are below. Any jump to your mind?
Texas 1947 – Guy Clark
Well there’s fifty or sixty people they’re just sittin’ on their cars,
and the old men left their dominos and they come down from the bars.
Everybody’s checkin’, old Jack Kittrel check his watch,
and us kids put our ears to the rails to hear ’em pop.
So we already knowed it, when they finally said ‘train time’
you’d a-thought that Jesus Christ his-self was rollin’ down the line.
‘Cause things got real quiet, momma jerked me back,
But not before I’d got the chance to lay a nickel on the track.
Look out here she comes, she’s comin’,
Look out there she goes, she’s gone,
screamin’ straight through Texas
like a mad dog cyclone.
Big, red, and silver,
she don’t make no smoke,
she’s a fast-rollin’ streamline
come to show the folks.
City of New Orleans – Steve Goodman made famous by Willie Nelson
Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday mornin’ rail;
Fourteen cars and fourteen restless riders,
Three conductors, twenty five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey, the train rolls out of Kankakee
Ridin’ past the houses, farms and fields,
Passin’ trains that have no names, freight yards full of old black men,
The graveyards of the rusted automobiles.
Amtrack Crescent – Scott Miller
Well the Amtrak Crescent is a north bound train
When you can’t afford to stay no more in New Orleans
So I bought the cheapest ticket and I carried my clothes
And the blood beneath my eyes from a broken nose
When life goes wrong this train goes on and on
When life goes wrong this train goes on
The Midnight Special – Leadbelly
Let the midnight special, shine her light on me
Let the midnight special, shine her ever-loving light on me
If you ever go to Houston, you better walk right, you better not stagger, you better not fight
Sheriff Binford* will arrest you, he’ll carry you down
And if the jury finds you guilty, penitentiary bound
Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone..
When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry.
Railroad Lady – Jimmy Buffet and Jerry Jeff Walker
She’s a railroad lady
Just a little bit shady
Spending her days on the train
She’s a semi-good looker
The fast rails they took ‘er
Now she’s tryin’, just tryin’ to get home again.
Well they gave him his orders at Monroe Virginia sayin’ Steve you’re way behind time
This is not 38 this is old 97 you must put her into Spencer on time
Then he turned around and said to his black greasy fireman shovel on a little more coal
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain watch old 97 roll
Whenever Kindness Fails – Robert Earl Keen
I only have a moment to explain
Just a chance to let you know
When it’s time for you to board the train
There are two ways you can go
You can ride the wheels into the sun
Feel the wind upon your face
Or you can laugh into a loaded gun
And you’ll likely lose your place
So I shot ’em down, one by one
Then I left ’em ‘long the rails
I use my gun
Whenever kindness fails
Desperados Waiting for a Train – Guy Clark
He’s a drifter, a driller of oil wells
He’s an old school man of the world
He taught me how to drive his car when he was too drunk to
And he’d wink and give me money for the girls
And our lives was like, some old Western movie
Like desperados waitin’ for a train
Like desperados waitin’ for a train
The Gambler – Kenny Rogers
On a warm summer’s evenin’ on a train bound for nowhere,
I met up with the gambler; we were both too tired to sleep.
So we took turns a starin’ out the window at the darkness
‘Til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.
King of the Road – Roger Miller
Third boxcar, midnight train
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues,
I smoke old stogies I have found
Short, but not too big around
I’m a man of means by no means
King of the road.
I know every engineer on every train
All of their children, and all of their names
And every handout in every town
And every lock that ain’t locked
When no one’s around.
Anyway, Wikipedia has a very incomplete list of 112. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Songs_about_trains.
* This was originally transcribed as Benson, but the name of the Sheriff was Harris County Sheriff T. A. Benson who was Sheriff from Dec. 1918 until Jan. 1st, 1937. He was also a member of the KKK according to the book “Houston Blue” which the evil people at Google have online for you free at here .