As immigrant America traveled over the waters from innumerable foreign ports, many times they brought only what they could carry. Nevertheless, they carried, in their heads and hearts, a tradition of music we have come to call folk songs.
The term Folk music came from England, where they took the German word “volk”, meaning people, and applied it to mean the common people of England, the illiterate peasants who passed on stories and legends through song as they were unable to publish books.
Folk songs record the experience of the people who wrote and sang them, and as America moved out of the eastern port cities, the songs documented their journey. Generally uneducated and illiterate, the immigrants worked with their backs. The mines and mills of the budding industrial heartland offered ample work, though it was dangerous and dirty. Pacing the move into the Ohio Valley, the railroads carried the tools and supplies needed to build the industries, and the immigrant found work on the Irons as well. This living adventure was recorded in the songs and tales the people created as their history. As the measured meter of sledgehammer and pick axe, the cadence of steam engine and the shrill blast of train whistle were the tempo of the railroad, so the rhythm of guitar, fiddle and banjo were the gait of the railroad worker. Music was used by workers doing repetitive manual labor to keep timing and tempo in sync.
Prisoners breaking rock for railroad ballast, sing a “work song” to keep tempo
As the railroad became less a novelty and more a part of everyday life, the folk songs of the people began to reflect this new reality. Folk music scholar Norm Cohen’s 768 page work “Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong” offers a deep insight into the relationship between the people and the railroad, as recorded in their songs. As noted in the intro to Cohen’s work, the coming of the rails was a seminal event for growth and economic expansion in America, but the relationship between the railroad and the people it impacted was many times a rocky one.
Nothing has so drastically altered the face of this continent as the parallel steel ribbons that Americans began to weave across it in the 1830’s. … To many Americans, these same ribbons were lines of worry, for the growth of the railroads was not viewed unanimously with total approval.
The Opening Stanza: Probably the first train song, prominent Baltimorean Charles Carroll commissioned a song for the 1828 opening of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. “Railroad March” was played again in 1927 at the anniversary of the railroad. In the years since, untold numbers of train songs have been written. Untold, in part because so many were never committed to published work, and in part because it is a genre that defies dedicated definition.
Who Gets to Sing: Jim Reeves’ “The Wreck of the Number Nine” is certainly a train song… how about “The Ballad of Casey Jones”, about a famous* train driver? How about “John Henry”, the steel drivin’ man whose hammer and iron spike carved holes in the rock walls of a railroad tunnel faster than a steam powered drill? (*Note, whether Casey Jones or John Henry actually lived, or whether they actually did the deeds for which they are famous is gloriously irrelevant!)) Jones and Henry’s eponymous memorial tunes certainly belong in the genre, as the events described are directly related to the railroad. Other songs, though famously remembered as train songs, push the definition. Traditional ballad “The Midnight Special” has a title about a train, and the spiritual message of being carried from bondage on the ‘Special certainly qualifies, but it is at heart a prison work song… at least in the form it has come to us today. Pop reference Wikipedia’s write-up on the subject lists 1000-ish songs, and a walk along those tracks reveals such tunes as those discussed above, but also Michael Martin Murphy’s “Cherokee Fiddle”. A moving portrait of pride and poverty, this concerns an aged Native American fiddle player who meets the passenger train as it comes in the station and entertains the passengers in return for whiskey. Johnny Cash’s seminal work “Folsom Prison Blues” makes the list, however, much like “Midnight Special”, and “Cherokee Fiddle”, it is only peripherally about trains. Candidates whose qualifications include only a mention of The Irons, such as Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” (“… and a freight train runnin’ through the middle of my head”) do not make the cut.
There Are No Bad Songs: But there are Bad Men… lots of bad men!
Ask Mr. Google about “bad men” and “trains”
and he’ll likely answer you “see ‘Jesse James’ ”
(hey, that’s the start of a good modern folk train song!) Indeed, an early tune called “The Ballad of Jesse James” was penned by Billy Gashade in 1882, and the second line concerns the robbery of the “Danville train”. Actually a couple of trains, the Chicago Tribune’s 1883 write-up proclaims the perpetrator to be a mystery… though, thanks to Gashade, we know better. Other train robbers, Sam Bass, Cole Younger et. al., got the folk song treatment as well, though the Union Pacific train robbery Younger is credited with probably did not happen. On the Texas-Mexican border, Mexican bandido Jose Mosqueda was immortalized in song, though he had already been immortalized in portrait… on a “wanted” poster following the 1891 robbery of the Rio Grand Railroad’s Brownsville to Point Isabel train.
“Robbin’ ” Hood and the Shiny Irons: A ride on the rails that run through the lyrics of these songs reveals a stark disconnect between the actions of the men and the treatment by the lyrics… the train robbers overwhelmingly are viewed as heroes. This is a theme that runs deep through the genre not only of train songs but of folk songs in general. Mosquedo was seen as a champion of the populace who gave his ill-gotten gains to the poor farmers. Jesse James’ exploits against the railroads were viewed as retribution for the railroads’ seizure of land for rights of way. Though the land owners were compensated for their land, the popular sentiment, particularly in James’ native Missouri, was that the land owners had no choice but to surrender their farms. As the robbers kept very poor books, it cannot be quantified, but modern scholars hold that the train-jackers kept far more for themselves than they donated to the poor.
Singing on the Rails – The Great Depression: “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Par-reee?” The end of World War One and the associated Spanish Influenza epidemic heralded a tremendous upswing in prosperity in America. Industrial, retail, and office jobs in the cities brought a great number of people to these cities, while an increase in the demand for oil brought the extraction industry to Oklahoma and Texas. The boom would end with a monumental bust in October of 1929, throwing millions out of work and ushering in the era of the “hobo song”. In spite of the grim misery of the actual times, the era of the Depression might well be called the golden age of the train song. Chronicled by such troubadours as Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Rodgers, Cisco Houston and others, the songs of the “travelers” are still staples of folk in the 21st century. After leaving Texas, Woody Guthrie hopped a train to California in search of work. Along the way, he logged the tales of dozens of travelers in such songs as “Hard Travelin’ ”
I’ve been ridin’ them fast rattlers, I thought you knowed
I’ve been ridin’ them flat wheelers, way down the road
I’ve been ridin’ them blind passengers, dead-enders, kickin’ up cinders
telling of going to North Dakota to cut wheat, to Pittsburgh to work steel… and serving 90 days in jail, likely for being caught riding the train without having bought a ticket. Guthrie’s “Hobo’s Lullaby” offers a very appealing (and probably not very realistic) portrait of the traveler;
Go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Listen to the steel rails hummin’
That’s the hobo’s lullaby
Many of the Depression Era train songs detailed the strained relationship between the travelers and the railroad detectives, brakemen and other workers. Cisco Houston’s “East Texas Red” records a fictional encounter between a pair of itinerant workers and a railroad “bull”. Railroad police were called bulls, as were brakemen who were not friendly to the illegal riders. In Southeast Texas;
There used to ride a brakeman and a brakeman double tough
He worked the town of Kilgore and Longview nine miles down
Us trav’lers called him East Texas Red the meanest bull around.
In this song, the brakeman chases two men off the railroad right of way, but they return later and murder the brakeman.
Song and Legend in Better Times: The end of the Depression and of World War Two heralded another period of optimism, which was reflected in the train songs. Though written much after the fact, Guy Clark’s childhood reminiscence tells of that optimism. “Texas, 1947” explores the effect that changing railroad technology had on a small town in far western Texas. Clark was born and raised in Monahans, Texas, right at the southeast corner of New Mexico. The song tells of a Diesel-electric locomotive pulling a passenger consist through the town… at speed. The people of the town have been accustomed to seeing the normal steam locomotives;
Trains are big and black and smokin’ – steamin’ screamin’ at the wheels…
After a build-up of nervous anticipation, the train makes its appearance, a shock and awe look at the future, which is here… and… gone;
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
Upon her return from Oz, actress Judy Garland conspired with noted lyrics designer Roger Hammerstein, MGM movie studio and the MGM Chorus on “The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe”, a wonderful ditty from the movie “The Harvey Girls”. Ever the railroad song, The AT&SF not only had a “… list o’ passengers that’s pretty big”, it had quite the railroad history, too. As noted in “The Shiny Irons in Movies and Television”, Leavenworth, Kansas railroader Fred Harvey’s restaurant chain Harvey Houses provided the plot for Garland and company.
In the early 20th Century, Elizabeth Cotton wrote her own train song. Life intervened, and in the bustle of making a living, the song was stored away in Cotton’s head for decades. In the late ’40s, Cotton took work as a housekeeper and nanny for the family of folk legend Pete Seeger. Remembering her love for guitar and singing, in 1958 Cotton would go on to record “Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes” for folk music gold mine Smithsonian Folkways. The tune has become a folk staple, recorded by dozens of artists, as diverse as Herb Alpert, Alan Jackson, and Jerry Garcia. The stint in the studio also made Elizabeth Cotton, then in her 60s, an icon of the American folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s.
While the years of the early rock’n’roll era were definitely a golden age for trains, and as much for train songs, the decade from 1955-1964 was also a golden age for goofy songs and associated goofy dance crazes. The Shiny Irons did their part in hauling this craze to the consumers, assisting Eva Boyd, a.k.a. Little Eva, with her 1962 hit “The Loco-Motion”. Dancers lined up, each person with their hands on the hips of the dancer in front of them… kinda like… a train… and;
Now that you can do it, let’s make a chain, now
(Come on baby, do the loco-motion)
A chug-a chug-a motion like a railroad train, now
In 1965, Roger Miller channeled the 1930’s hobos with “King of the Road”. Another itinerant worker, Miller sings of;
Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination, Bangor, Maine.
By the ’60s, we’d moved past the time of turmoil with the railroad workers, partly because Miller has taken pains to become familiar with them;
I know every engineer on every train
All of their children, and all of their names
The Song Fades to Black: Several songs of the 1960s featured trains prominently in their lyrics, though they were not specifically about trains; “Last Train to Clarksville”, “Marrakesh Express”, Bob Dylan’s “Freight Train Blues”, Taj Mahal’s awkwardly named “She Caught the Katy and Left Me a Mule to Ride” featuring the little-known Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad. With the denouement of the passenger rail in the U.S., the train song as such had reached the end of its time. The genre would not go quietly into the night, though. In 1971, songster Steve Goodman penned a tune and showed it to folksinger Arlo Guthrie. As Woody’s kid, Arlo knew a good folk tune when he heard it, and on his 1972 work “Hobo’s Lullaby”, he recorded “City of New Orleans”, the penultimate train song.
Train songs in the decades since have been few and far between, mostly cover versions of older songs. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, part of the new folk revival, sang of the disappearance of the train in their 2003 work “Wayside/Back in Time“;
Standing on the corner with a nickel or a dime
There used to be a rail car to take you down the line
The Irons in Song and Spirit: The train song has been as much a part of the spiritual life of the folksingers as of their physical life. When the folksinger first laid eyes on the rails, the image of physical transport was intertwined with the image of spiritual transport. The Transcendent Irons became a metaphor for the journey to the next life in a wealth of train songs. From the tradition of gospel “field song” sung by slaves in the American south, “The Gospel Train” was published in 1872;
The gospel train is coming,
I hear it just at hand,
I hear the car wheels moving,
And rumbling thro’ the land.
Other songs from this tradition include “Be In Time”, “Glory Bound Train”, “I’m Going Home on the Heaven Bound Train” and many, many others. Other train songs with a spiritual theme include “Life is Like a Mountain Railway”;
Life is like a mountain railway
With an engineer that’s brave
We must make this run successful
From the cradle to the grave
In 2003, country and gospel recording artist Josh Turner warned of another spiritual train… one which was on the other track, carrying the un-righteous to their doom;
There’s a long black train
Coming down the line
Feeding off the souls that are lost and crying
Tales of sin only evil remains
Watch out brother for that long black train
Kids Sing, Too: Many of the songs written about the railroad have been aimed at the younger rider. The traditional “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” is a popular starter song in many elementary school music classes. “The Little Engine that Could”, “Down By the Station”, Choo-Choo Train” are aimed at small children, and older young folkies are familiar with “Casey Jones”, John Henry”, Wabash Cannonball” and other train tunes. As soon as the train appeared on the folk horizon, it began to make its presence felt in folk music, and though the trains have mostly stopped, the folk tradition continues. Fueled by the songs of yesterday, and those from yester-centuries, The Anthem of the Irons continues to be heard in the land. An unknown Irons songmaker appropriated the tune from Hedy West’s much-covered “500 Miles” to lampoon the modern passenger rail service with “The Amtrak Song;
If you miss the train I’m on,
And you doubt that I’ll be back,
You will know the train I’m on
Is called AmTrak.
Lord, I’m one; Lord, I’m two;
Lord, I’m three; Lord, I’m four;
Lord, I’m five hours late
To New York.
Not a seat on the train,
Not a place to put my pack,
As the train crawls along
Lord, there’s one; Lord, there’s two;
Lord, there’s three; Lord, there’s four;
Lord, there’s five wrecks a month
On this line.
Warm flat soda to drink,
Stale sandwiches to eat,
And I’d hate to see the cow
That gave this meat.
Lord, there’s one; Lord, there’s two;
Lord, there’s three; Lord, there’s four;
Lord, there’s five strains of mold
On this bread.
Four O’Clock in the morn,
And a blizzard at my back,
As I’m standing by the track,
Lord, there’s one, maybe one,
Only one, surely one,
Lord, there’s one train a night
On this line.
There’s a train going here,
There’s a train going there,
But you can’t get there from here
There’s just no train at all,
Yes, there’s no train at all,
‘Cause they’ve cut the train that goes
From here to there
… ahh, well, the trains still run despite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Thank you for joining our song-circle and keep the rails shiny!!
The Crescent City and The Shiny Irons
Author Ted Anthony tells us in his folk song pilgrimage “Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Folk Song”;
Somewhere in the hills where North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia meet sits The Village. It’s not a real town—at least not the kind of reality we’re accustomed to…. The Village has no physical boundaries, only songs and the stories they contain.
The roads that lead out of The Village – and the railroads, always the railroads – sweep south through the Appalachian Mountains… winding past Nashville to the Mississippi Delta…. All roads end down in New Orleans….
Anthony’s folk song is, of course, “House of the Rising Sun”, made familiar to Americans through Eric Burdon and the Animals’ 1964 hit song. In his ten year long quest to uncover the roots of the song, Anthony discovered it is much older than Burdon’s half-century-young version, winding through the eponymous city, back across the Pontchartrain and through Delta country, up into the hills and disappearing into the mists of time. “… Rising Sun” is an eclectic mix of old English troubadours, Scots-Irish immigrants, black minstrels, creole, country, barroom bawdy; a tale of innocence lost and woeful warning. Set in New Orleans.
As one of the very oldest cities in America, the Big Easy has a story both long and flavorful. Long thought of as a boat town, the Crescent City’s nickname comes from the large bend in the Mississippi River where the town was originally built. Less well known is the very old relationship between the Crescent City and the Shiny Irons.
As the Nineteenth Century dawned, American commerce was moved primarily over water. The Irons were just beginning to prove their mettle. One of the very first railroads in the U.S. was the Pontchartrain Railroad outside of New Orleans. The railroad began as a tramway, a rail track which carried horse drawn carts. In 1831, a steam engine was added to the railroad. Called the “Old Smoky Mary”, the puffer transported goods and industrial supplies from the Mississippi River port of Marigny, near today’s French Quarter, to the Pontchartrain Lake port of Milneburg. The mostly unpopulated Milneburg area was also a popular picnicing and recreation area, and the railroad also carried passengers on holiday, disembarking them at the park covered with a thick layer of soot and ash! The Smoky Mary continued to ride passengers up the five miles of Elysian Avenue for just over 100 years, smoke and soot notwithstanding. The last passenger stepped off on March 15, 1932, and freight service continued until 1935.
Play a Train Song
In the wonderfully optimistic days before World War Two… The Andrews Sisters version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”
from their 1941 single.