Trains have long captured the imagination of wandering, restless spirits everywhere. Some of those vagabond souls have been songwriters. It's true that planes, automobiles, boats, and ships conjure some of the same emotions and vivid imagery that trains do, but songs such as Prince's Little Red Corvette, John Denver's Leaving On A Jet Plane, and the old folk tune Michael Row Your Boat A Shore just don't cut it for me. Ok, ok those are bad examples. After all I love Bruce Springsteen's Racing In The Streets, Merle Haggard's Silver Wings, and Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald but still there's nothing like a train song. The train seems to be the perfect vehicle to invest all of one's emotional baggage into and to make sense of it all.
And what train songs do I recommend to stir the senses? Well perhaps
we could start with the quintessential train song The Wabash Cannonball, then move on to Elizabeth Cotton's Freight Train - sparse lyrically but beautifully capturing the rhythm and cadence of the train moving down the track. The Depression era song Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime mentions a guy who built a railroad and had a train that could "race against time." But alas, like so many others during that time period in American history, he lost it all. And how can we forget one of Elvis Presley's early tunes called Mystery Train. Another song by the aforementioned Mr. Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy teaches us about the role of the railroad in the opening up of the Canadian wilderness and the toil and struggle of the workers who made it possible. Feelings of longing and regret are captured brilliantly in Tom Wait's aptly titled Train Song and in the Tony Joe White penned tune Rainy Night In Georgia.
Sometimes the song itself has very little to do with trains at all. Billy Joe Shaver's Georgia On A Fast Train is a song that uses the train as a metaphor for growing up fast in the school of hard knocks. Sometimes the train is used symbolically to describe a spiritual quest or journey as in the folk standard This Train and in Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready. Guy Clark's Desperados Waiting For The Train is a bittersweet remembrance of the past and those rugged individualists who change our lives.
Though not confined to any particular genre of music, the train has naturally found a home within the country music community. In fact, renegade country music singer/songwriter David Allan Coe once remarked that the perfect country and western song could not be without the mention of a train (along with momma, prison, trucks and getting drunk). So Steve Goodman added all of these elements to his song, You Never Even Called Me By My
Name. Goodman also gave us the joyous, magnificent train song City of New Orleans.
Perhaps no one performed more train songs than did Johnny Cash (q.v.) From Train Of Love to Come Along and Ride This Train to The Orange Blossom Special, trains held an almost reverential place in the heart and mind of Cash. But perhaps Cash's most chilling song that deals with trains as subject matter is one of my all time favorites, Folsom Prison Blues. In the song, a condemned prisoner is tormented by the sound of a passenger train where everybody is laughing, drinking coffee, and smoking big cigars. And the freedom he so desires will forever elude him as the train moves on" down to San Antone."
While Cash envisioned the train as a vehicle to carry him away to freedom, Jack Johnson recast the train as a prison in and of itself in Breakdown. With a melodic ukulele intro, we get the sense that this is just another
laidback Johnson tune. But the lyrics would suggest otherwise. It appears he is on a commuter train taking him to a mind-numbing soul sucking job in the big city. He pleads if not prays that the train " breaks down", so he can take a respite from the hustle and bustle of his life. Maybe meet some of the people populating the small towns along the way of his commute. But the train just keeps moving on...
Through the course of our short train ride we covered a lot of ground, and I realize I might have failed to mention some of your favorite train songs. But fret not, feel free to hop on board at any train station or depot you're so inclined either real or imbedded deep within the imagination. In the meantime, I'll play another train song.