When the train stops in the Delta

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, May 15, 2018

At Marks, Miss., the latest addition to Amtrak's rail map, townspeople listen to speeches at the new shelter and platform on opening day, May 4. Bob Johnston
With all the current gloom surrounding the prospects for Amtrak’s long-distance service, it might be surprising to see the railroad actually make an improvement to an overnight train. But that’s just what happened, effective a few days ago, as the Chicago–New Orleans City of New Orleansbegan making regular stops at tiny Marks, Miss.

With a population of about 1,500, Marks won’t tip the scales much for trains 58 and 59. Still, local government and citizens as well as the state DOT worked hard for the stop, investing $1.2 million in the facility. Don’t tell themthere isn’t a place for long-distance trains.

I imagine many of the folks who now board the train at Marks are probably well aware of the City’s status as America’s most musical train. 

The train earned that moniker long ago, first by serving New Orleans, birthplace of so much American music, and later when songwriter Steve Goodman launched the train into pop consciousness with “City of New Orleans,” which was a hit for Arlo Guthrie in 1972. When I came up with a list of top 10 train songs for a story in the September 2017 issue of Trains, I put Goodman’s perceptive masterpiece at No. 1.

But back to Marks. In 1995, when Amtrak moved the train off the Illinois Central’s old Grenada District and onto the Yazoo District, it brought trains 58 and 59 out of the hills of central Mississippi and plunked it down onto the vast flatland of the Delta, home of the blues.

The cultural influence of Delta Blues can’t be overstated. As the Delta’s great statesman Muddy Waters once said, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ’n’ roll.” The town of Marks shares that legacy.

An Illinois Central 4-6-2 leads daily local train 32 north near Swan Lake, Miss., 33 miles south of Marks, just past dawn in February 1941. C. W. Whitbeck
Marks is located 69 miles south of Memphis in Quitman County, an area rich with musical pedigree. The local luminaries include slide-guitar master Earl Hooker (1929­1970), harmonica ace James Edward “Snooky” Pryor (1921­–2006), and barrelhouse pianist Albert “Sunnyland Slim” Luandrew (1906–1995), plus a giant often linked to Quitman County, the great boogie icon John Lee Hooker (1917–2001). 

The area also claims a country music legend, Charlie Pride, the pioneering African-American honky-tonk star. Pride hails from Vance, just 14 miles down state Highway 3 from Marks. All of these artists sang railroad songs at one time or another, and all presumably were influenced by the IC trains running up and down the Yazoo when they were growing up.

Of all these artists, Sunnyland Slim is my favorite. For one thing, he had the audacity to appropriate the flavorful name of the Frisco’s old overnight Kansas City–Birmingham train, which, along with its St. Louis connection, was well known to residents of the Delta. The Sunnyland Specialpops up in more than a few blues lyrics. 

But Luandrew, or Sunnyland, also had Illinois Central credentials. He was born in Vance on the IC, and upon becoming a musician stayed close to the railroad by moving up to Memphis in 1925. In 1948, RCA Victor had a modest hit with his song “Illinois Central,” punctuated by Sunnyland’s evocative “Whooo!,” ostensibly an homage to the train’s whistle but also a lament for lost love. He blamed the IC for his troubles: 

I want to tell you people, what that Illinois Central will do,

I want to tell you people, what that Illinois Central will do,

It’ll steal your woman, and blow back after you.

During the glory days of IC passenger service, the big trains operated over on the Grenada District — including the famed Panama Limited— but the Yazoo had its charms. Consider this lovely C. W. Witbeck photograph from February 1941, showing an IC local, led by 4-6-2 No. 1104, rolling northward as dawn breaks on the Delta at Swan Lake, just a few miles south of Marks. 

“Delta soul” musician Steve Azar, Mississippi’s official music and cultural ambassador, entertains the crowd at Marks during opening ceremonies for the station on May 4. The area is rich in music history. Bob Johnston
By the late 1940s, Marks was down to a single passenger train, a daily local that made the lonely 130-mile Memphis–Tutwiler–Greenwood run in just over 4 hours. Not long thereafter, this part of the old Yazoo went freight-only. 

Now, after all those decades, it’s easy to see why the locals in Marks are excited about their new train service. Their station is a modest affair — basically a new platform and parking lot with an open-air shelter equipped with heaters — but it’s the product of nearly 20 years of lobbying and courting Amtrak. No wonder so many people turned out for the inaugural stops. 

Meanwhile, the Delta’s music lives on. I’ve been to the Delta numerous times, and although tastes elsewhere might change, I’ve been heartened to see that young musicians there are still drawn to the blues. You can hear them in the few juke joints and music venues that hang on in northwest Mississippi in places like Clarksdale, Merigold, and even over in Oxford. 

Maybe one of those new blues men and women will witness the City of New Orleanspull into Marks one of these mornings or evenings, then go write a song of their own. That’s a tradition worth keeping. 

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