Rails run deep through America’s musical traditions

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Sunday, December 16, 2018

Over the course of a train trip, if I’m not reading, working on my laptop or iPad, or socializing with fellow passengers, I almost invariably have my headphones on. I become absorbed in the synchronous sensual experience derived uniquely from the combination of wheels rolling underfoot, ever-changing landscapes out the window and music with a matching beat. I like to describe this zone as my happy place (or at least one of them). The music I groove to on train rides derives largely from the late 19th and early 20th-century American experience.

Guitarists jam in an Amtrak lounge car in 1974. Photo by Charles O’Rear / Wilkimedia Commons.
Trains has printed a number of pieces over the years on how railroads, being a major presence in the lives of most Americans and in American culture for the better part of the nation’s history, are a major theme in American music. The most recent of these was the cover story in the September 2017 issue. But trains are more than simply a thematic element. The sounds and the feelings associated with them — the rhythm of the rails — are present in numerous strains of the blues: the musical form that germinated among African-Americans, primarily in the South, and gave birth to R&B and rock ’n roll and heavily influenced country & western music.

Trains were not only a common means for people to get from one city or town to another from after the Civil War till after World War II, but they were particularly central to the African-American experience. Railroads offered some of the best-paying jobs available to black Americans after Reconstruction — the story of Pullman porters is best known today, but fireman, baggage handler and others were also sought-after positions. Trains also offered a means of getting to the North, where even better economic prospects were available, and black railroaders would distribute books, newspapers, magazines and records by black authors, publishers and artists from Chicago, New York, Detroit and other cities to the rest of the country.

Nowhere in American music is the feel of a train ride more evident than in boogie woogie piano, whose earliest progenitors speak of adopting its hard-driving rhythm from the experience of riding the rails. Among these were Cow Cow Davenport (whose name may have derived from the term “cow catcher”), Pine Top Smith and  Meade “Lux” Lewis, who each recorded an influential solo piano piece in the late 1920s. Try listening to “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” “Cow Cow Blues,” or “Boogie Woogie Prayer” on your next train trip while looking out the window as you roll along at track speed and you’ll hear what I mean.

Other early country and blues artists who were close to the rails and wrote or recorded numerous train songs include Jimmie Rodgers  (‘The Singing Brakeman’), Bukka White, Woody Guthrie, Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas, and the Carter Family. “Wabash Cannonball,” “Waitin’ for a Train” and “Orange Blossom Special” are widely known, as are a number of train wreck ballads. Odes have been penned to the passenger trains of the Illinois Central, C&O, Santa Fe, Union Pacific and others.

As an undergrad student at Guilford College in North Carolina, I hosted a program for three years on the student-run radio station where I played the roots of rock ‘n roll: blues, jazz, country and R&B from the 1920s to the early 1960s. I once was able to fill over 12 hours of radio with nothing but songs about trains from that period. I also mixed in a few contemporary recordings that are in keeping with those earlier styles.

Though other modes of travel have inspired a number of songs, none is more embedded in America’s musical heritage than the railroad. Songs about automobiles come close, but aren’t quite as proliferates as train songs. Musically speaking, when you think about going to heaven, or down below, it’s never in a car or a plane. The train is also synonymous with the urge to ramble and the need for a change of scenery, and it’s almost always the mode that carries one’s sweetheart away. Their whistles are sometimes haunting, but also sound the siren song of freedom to those imprisoned, as in Huddie Ledbetter’s “Midnight Special” or Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Though trains are not as integral to most Americans’ lives today as they were 50 to 150 years ago, their rhythm and cadence still permeates the blues, jazz, rock, country and even pop. Musicians still seek to perform on or about trains, and some have used them as a mobile performance medium. You’ll usually hear some of the railroad classics when you visit tourist railroads and rail museums.

What are some of your favorite memories or observations about the intersection of railroads and music? And what’s your favorite train song? Mine would have to be Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” Take me right back to the track, Jack!

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