Has anyone ever written a bad song about trains?
by Gordon Campbell
There is a term – siderodromophobia – for the persistent fear of trains, and the thought of traveling on them. At times, the condition probably crosses over with megalophobia, which is the fear of big things, and hodophobia, the fear of going anywhere at all. For almost everyone else, trains are the ultimate romantic form of travel, in that they symbolize …freedom and new possibilities, endless rhythm and a whole lot of stuff to do with trains going into tunnels.
The following list of great train songs is entirely arbitrary. Due to being unable to find a link online, I’ve had to omit Victoria Williams’ tender-hearted lament ‘Train Song (Demise of the Caboose)’ but in passing, her lyrics convey why we should take time out to regret the decline of the railroads :
I’d like to take this time to complain / about the trains
They used to have the finest chefs / saddle car, a nice place to rest/
Windows now are sealed up tight / a man can’t breathe, and he’s got the right
And what about the tracks they laid / long ago, well, they all decayed
A job for every man / new tracks across the land
I feel the need to say a bit more/ instead of building up for war
I’ve got a few more healthy chores / for the fellas dressed in green
Build us a train run by the sun / connect the small towns, every one
When granny gets too old to drive, she can read a book and look outside….
Through fields they rambled / over mountains they climbed
Why, they could go to every town, yours and mine
But nowadays / it ain’t no use, there’s no caboose.
Here’s the best of the rest :
1. ‘Riding Down from Bangor’ by Frank Crumit During the 1920s and 30s, the American tenor Frank Crumit was a ukelele playing hit machine who turned out a string of novelty numbers – “A Gay Caballero,” There’s No-One With Endurance Like the Man Who Sells Insurance”” “What Noise Annoys An Oyster” and the epic ‘Abdul Abulbul Amir’ – which was about a duel to the mutual death between the Russian giant Ivan Skavinsky Skavar and the Sultan’s doomed champion, Abdul. In the 1980s, “Abdul” was adapted into a Whitbread commercial starring the young Stephen Fry.
By the time Crumit got his hands on it, ‘Riding Down from Bangor’ was already an oldie.
A big hit in the 1890s, this risqué number is usually attributed to Louis Shreve Osborne, who published it in the Harvard Advocate in November, 1871. The storyline : a ‘tall and slim and swell’ young Harvard student boards a train ‘after weeks of hunting/in the woods of Maine.’ Enter a maiden ‘ beautiful, petite.’ To the scandalized horror of the aged couple who share the carriage, the sympathetic maiden offers to remove a cinder from the eye of the student. The task is no sooner tenderly completed when whoosh, bang, smash – the train enters a tunnel ‘full of glorious darkness/ black as Egypt’s night.’ Sometime later, the train emerges from the tunnel into daylight with student and young maiden ruffled and flustered – and with a tiny earring lodged in the horrid student’s beard. Top that, Lady Gaga !
2. ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ by Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash’s first major composition was justly celebrated in the movie I Walk the Line. This version comes from a 1959 live performance before he became The Man in Black. Cash had plagiarized much of the lyric and the melody un-credited from a song called “Crescent City Blues” by the noted musical arranger Gordon Jenkins, and Cash later paid a settlement to Jenkins after court action was taken. Some of the lines from “Crescent City Blues” certainly do sound familiar :
When I was just a baby, my mama told me, Sue/
When you’re grown up I want that you should go and see and do.
But I’m stuck in Crescent City just watching life mosey by
When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry.
Cash, at least, improved on it. And Jenkins never wrote a line anything like ‘I shot a man in Reno / just to see him die.’
3, ‘Night Train’ by James Brown. This clip from the TAMI Show never loses its power to amaze. Not to mention its intimidating effect on Mick Jagger who was waiting in the wings, and wondering how the hell he could possibly follow this guy onstage.
Not to forget the later impact on Michael Jackson and the Moonwalk, which clearly originated in what Brown was doing here. At the time he was performing this song at the TAMI Show, Brown was virtually unknown to white audiences, but he laid this racially integrated one to waste. In 1963, James Brown really was the brother from another planet. For a current reference point from 2010, check out this amazing performance by Janelle Monae on a recent David Letterman show, complete with Brown style dancing, the cape routine and the “one more time! “ homage…Letterman, as always, is a complete dork.
4. Love in Vain’ by Robert Johnson / ‘Train in Vain’ by the Clash This melancholy Robert Johnson train song is probably the most accessible of the Delta blues master’s major works and is alleged to have been written for a girlfriend, Willie Mae Powell. The Rolling Stones did a version on Let it Bleed – though churlishly, they didn’t attribute it to Johnson. Forty years later, the song’s near cousin ‘Train in Vain’ became the first global Top 40 hit for the Clash. Talk about the chain of song. Mick Jones wrote ‘Train In Vain’ one night and recorded it the next day as a bitter answer song to his former girlfriend Viv Albertine, and he included a sarcastic reference to her hit song for the Slits called ‘Typical Girls’ that had itself drawn upon Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’ to make some point about gender stereotypes in popular culture. Jones hit back with some great ‘You SO broke my heart’ lyrics. Truth be told, Albertine never did advocate standing by your man like Tammy did, but that only makes the rant even better.
You say you stand by your man
Tell me something I don’t understand
You said you loved me and that’s a fact
and then you left me, said you felt trapped
But some things you can’t explain away
But the heartache’s in me till this day
You can stand by me /No, not at all
You can stand by me /No way
All the times when we were close
I’ll remember these things the most
I see all my dreams come tumbling down
I can’t be happy without you round
So alone I keep the wolves at bay
and there is only one thing that I can say
You can stand by my, no not at all….
You must explain why this must be
Did you lie when you spoke to me…etc etc
Recorded too late to make either the track listing or the lyric sheet for the London Calling album, the song became a hit in both the UK and the US. This caused die-hard fans to claim (falsely) that the reason it hadn’t been acknowledged on the album sleeve was because the group felt the song was ’too commercial.’ In fact for Jones at least, it was a highly personal piece of work. As many others have noted, the song makes no direct mention to ‘train’ or to love ‘in vain’ – but Jones, who put enough of himself into this one to call the shots, simply felt it moved like a train.
5. ‘Train Kept a Rollin’’ by the Johnny Burnette Trio. This track and its flipside ‘Honey Hush’ had a huge impact on Jimmy Page – who later recorded ‘Train’ with the Yardbirds, with Led Zeppelin, with Aerosmith and with various bits and pieces down the years of Guns‘n’Roses and Metallica as well. All of which are available online. Good luck, because they’re all pretty terrible. The Burnette version remains the definitive one yet mystery has always surrounded just who was playing the innovative lead guitar part on it. Was it Paul Burlison of the Burnette Trio (for decades afterwards, he claimed credit for it) or was it the fabled session musician Grady Martin, the genius who went on to provide the distinctive lead on Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ the lovely Spanish picking on the Marty Robbins hit ‘El Paso’ and who also invented the fuzz box guitar sound, during a 1961 session with Robbins.
Well, it has only taken about 50 years to be sure, but it really was Grady Martin laying this down on July 2, 1956. The Burlison vs Martin story is related here I liked how Burlison claimed he got this sound by fiddling with a particular valve on a particular amp, and this explained why he couldn’t ever quite do it again. Yeah, right. For ‘Train’ completists, the 1951 original swingtime version of the song by the guy who wrote it, Tiny Bradshaw, is available here.
6. ‘Southern Casey Jones’ by Jesse James. The death of Casey Jones the brave engineer has been celebrated in dozens of ways since the original train crash on that foggy night in 1900. This version is from 1935, by prison parolee Jesse James – who borrowed more than a little bit of it from an earlier Furry Lewis version called “Kassie Jones.” The piano and James’ exuberant vocal are all his own work though, and they drive this one along.
I really like the complete cynicism displayed by Jones’ widow, who tells her grieving kids in the lyrics to wipe their eyes, because (a) they’ll get money from their daddy’s death and (b) they’ll soon have another daddy, riding the same damn track.
7. ‘Mystery Train’ by Elvis Presley. As the gang at Wikipedia indicate, when Junior Parker and Sam Philips wrote this song in 1953, they clearly borrowed a chunk of it from the Carter Family’s 1930 hit ‘Worried Man Blues’ which contains a few lines about ‘The train arrived sixteen coaches long / The train arrived sixteen coaches long. The girl I love is on that train and gone.’ Parker and Elvis Presley both changed that line to “train I ride” and yet when Presley recorded it for Sam Philips at Sun Records the song was buried on the B-side of one of lesser Presley’s country ballads. It went on to become perhaps his most critically celebrated track to the point where Greil Marcus used it in the 1970s as the title and central metaphor for his best selling treatise on American music.
8. ‘New Frisco Train’ by Bukka White Okay, the blues kingpin of train songs has got to be Bukka White, who wrote a string of great ones : ‘Panama Limited,’ ‘Special Streamline’ ‘Atlanta Special,’ ‘Bald Eagle Train’ etc etc. The best of them is this one, ‘New Frisco Train’ from 1937, in which he was joined by Napoleon Harrison on vocals and second guitar. Besides being a terrific guitarist and a good, gravel-voiced singer in the Charley Patton / Blind Willie Johnson style, White was also a wonderful lyricist. His “Sleepy Man Blues” for instance, was a really insightful song about the symptoms and the pathway of depression.
When it came to ‘New Frisco Train’ White painted a lovely and evocative picture of what it would have been like to ride the rails, one night back in 1937. ‘Get your shoes boy, lets go !/ If we don’t catch it at the crossing we’ll catch it at the bend !…Going to Vicksburg, in the cool of the evening..!’ Beautiful stuff. As usual White employed his National Steel guitar to evoke the sound of crossing bells, and the headlong rhythm of a train in motion. As a bonus, here’s some footage from after White’s rediscovery in the early 1960s, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsMpHHSLSlc&feature=related
as he stoically delivered a driving version of ‘Aberdeen Mississippi Blues.’ .
9. ‘The Locomotion’ by Little Eva. Eva Boyd died in 2003, but back in 1962 she was the maid and babysitter for writers Carole King and Gerry Goffin and she ended up singing it on the demo, and then on the million selling official release. Many have tried to sing it since – Grand Funk Railroad, Atomic Kitten, Kylie Minogue etc – usually, with terrible results. The Locomotion was also a dance, so rather than link to a video of the original recording, here is Little Eva and a roomful of dancers doing the chugga chugga motion like a railroad train, on the Shindig TV show. On a less happy note, Boyd was also the inspiration for King/Goffin’s controversial song “ He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss”) after she told the songwriters that she regarded the fact that her boyfriend beat her up as a sign that deep down, he loved her.
10. ‘Train Song’ by Vashti Bunyan. This is one of Bunyan’s earliest recordings from the mid 1960s, a few years before she vanished in her gypsy caravan into the wilds of Ireland for nearly three decades and to raise her three children , and to tend her animals. After her re-discovery and work with Animal Collective, the song was revived in this admirably restrained duet by Feist, and Ben Gibbard of Death Can for Cutie.
11. ‘Midnight Special’ by Odetta. This song about a convict penned up behind prison walls while he listens to the free and lonesome whistle of the midnight train will always be associated with Leadbelly, who sung it for John and Alan Lomax on one of their many field recording trips to Angola prison. Even by then, the song had become a composite of bits and pieces of various work songs and old blues – Sam Collins had done a version back in the 1920s – that date right back into the 19th century. Creedence Clearwater Revival also did a fine version, but the late, great Odetta loses nothing by comparison with any of them. Take your pick as to whether the midnight train represents the light of salvation, the torch of freedom, or just any available means of solace, and escape.
12. ‘Freak Train’ by Kurt Vile. To bring things roughly up to date, here’s a terrific 2009 train song, from Kurt Vile’s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdIXrcH7QLU&feature=relatedfirst mainstream album on Matador.
Appropriately, Kurt Vile grew up listening to his father’s old blues and country records, sometimes while riding on the train Charlie Vile still drives for the Philadelphia metro system.
13.”Fear of Trains” by The Magnetic Fields. Since I started off by taking the fear of trains lightly, lets end with this great one. There are two Magnetic Fields live clips of this song, but both have terrible sound and vision. I like this guy’s entirely honest, no frills version, and think how thrilled he’ll be if you suddenly boost his viewing numbers into double figures. Plus, you can sing along with these killer lyrics :
It was the army train that took her daddy from her
It was the bible train that took her momma too
And that high loud whistle made her horse run away
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was you
It was the government train that
took away her childhood
It was the KKK that took away her past
It was the white man’s will that hers be broken
But that barefoot girl could run too fast
Because the world’s too cold for
a girl like that /with a Blackfoot soul and a cowboy hat
Everything she loved went down the dragon track
She had a fear of trains
In the wheat fields of Montana
She’s always coming on dead rails
to break the plow and whisper “Honey,
bound to live, is bound to fail”
And in a park in San Francisco
her momma shrieks about the Lord
And down the dead rails there’s an echo
The wind is whistling all-aboard
It was the wagon train that took away her country
It was the oil train that took away her land
She could have been the belle of the Ponderosa
but that was not the fat man’s plan
So the fear of trains is an entirely reasonable position. Has anyone ever written a bad song about trains? To start the ball rolling on that one, the prosecution submits “ Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, and “Marrakesh Express” by CSN. Over to you.