47. Trains dont mean a thing

Posted on 29/04/2017

47. Trains dont mean a thing

Useful things, trains. Normally so efficient. But in music the image can mean anything and quite frequently nothing. The train can be joyful (Chatanooga Choo Cho) or sad (Johnny Cash below) or just and endless journey (JJ Cale below).

They often have a black meaning. Loss and wistfulness are the main themes. To start with a short clip of actua trains, the main one being the steam powered Flying Scotsman. Lovely noise it makes! Also blessedly brief: most train videos seem to last as long as a journey.

Victoria Williams’ ‘Train song’ is a brilliant evocation of a lost world: when as a child she used to sit in the ‘caboose’ at the back of the train with other schoolkids going to hear school in another town. They were looked after by a kindly old man, who like the rest of the furniture of the song has long vanished. Even the sound of a steam train, as in the clip above, evokes the (largely) vanished world. Victoria gives a short lecture to complain about this situation! Charmingly done, though.

Until only a decade or so ago the Indian Railways, the biggest system in the world, were still driven by coal. But the pilfering of coal got so bad that they were converted to diesel and the romance was lost.

Another brilliant evocation of what the big steam engines were like is this one by Steve Earle. I like the fact that his grandfather, showing him the great machine, took him to Palestine (pronounced ‘-steen’, and then hitchiked back home. I never knew that Palestine had been used as a town name before hearing this song.

Steve Earle is mainly known as one of the US’s main sources of alimony. He has been married 7 times (twice to the same lady) and has to spend a lot of time touring to pay the vast sums he owes. I hope he had a good time before the bills started coming in!

This is the most remarkable train song I know,not because of the song: the Wabash Cannonball is a fine old song, but because it is sung by a German country and western star. They clearly have a scene going on there presumably following wartime GI’s. But the two extraordinary things about this version are that Ronny has the most amazingly deep voice, and that he cant really speak English. His pronunciation of Wabash as ‘Verbish’ is worth the price of entry.

The following is one of JJ Cale’s train songs sung by Eric Clapton. A typical line from one such song has him asking the guard: ‘is she going up or going down’: he is just travelling to get away, with no specific purpose. Trains suited JJ: one of his songs ‘Call me the breeze’ talks of him setting off to travel on a whim, like the heroine of the film Chocolat.  In Cale’s case it may also coincide with when his love life took a downturn. ‘Train that goes to Nowhere sums up JJ’s approach to the railroad.

‘Waiting for a train’ is a sad song by the Singing Brakeman, Jimmy Rodgers. Written in the 1920’s it describes the plight of a poor vagrant who has not a cent to his name, to pay the guard to allow him to travel in the boxcar.

At only last 41 seconds, and features an elderly Johnny Cash, but its still magical.

Trains provide a wonderful basis for songs, but there’s no necessary message implied. They are just a way of getting a song from A to B.



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