Feature | September 25, 2014
Train Songs


travel by train

Tim Horton’s has been in the news because Burger King bought the Canadian company for eleven billion dollars. As someone who visited Canada once seven years ago, in my non-expert opinion, it’s a great move by BK. Tim Horton’s caters to the breakfast crowd. Which is to say, everyone. Some reading this are muttering to their computer screens, “Not me. I skip breakfast and dive straight into lunch.” Wrong. Breakfast, as a good friend once told me, is defined as whatever you first put in your gullet. Wake up at 5 PM and have a hardboiled egg and an iceberg wedge. Unhealthy and unorthodox, but it’s breakfast nonetheless. Tim Horton, the man, was a colorful hall of fame hockey player who met a tragic end many years ago. Judging Tim Horton’s from a single parking lot in Peterborough, Ontario, it appeared to be a most egalitarian establishment. Pickup trucks, Porsches, beat up sedans and luxury SUVs lined the lot, serving the Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts clientele of Canada. So, like breakfast, that meant every single man, woman and child.

 

train hobo

And this, ladies and gentlemen, reminded me of trains. In the 19th century and early 20th, trains were even more equitable than Tim Horton’s. There were the fancy cars for the rich. But upper class folks weren’t the only ones traveling by rail. Often on the very same train, hoboes – lovable cash-strapped vagabonds – rode down the line too. Hoboes, synonymous with railroad travel, weren’t technically homeless either. The railroad was a roving home. Instead of purchasing a ticket, they furtively climbed aboard. Homeland Security has made the hobo lifestyle harder, but it’s still easier to surreptitiously get onto a train than a plane. Both the rich and poor reserve a soft spot for trains. Because trains are for everyone. They rarely derail and barring some inter-dimensional error, can’t get lost either. While delays happen, there’s never traffic. By staying on course, railroads provide musicians with a consistent structure. You don’t start in a waltz and finish in 23/4 time. Similarly, on the ride from New York to DC there isn’t a rollercoaster on the Delaware section of track. No surprises. Jimmie Rodgers, one of progenitors of country music, better known as the “Singing Brakeman” couldn’t stop writing train-related tunes. A.P. Carter and Leadbelly did so as well. The earliest songs were often about trains because the earliest singers were obsessed with them.

 

ringo starr thomas tank engine

Regular people would sit and watch trains in small towns across America. Long before trainspotting connoted illicit drug use, it denoted spotting trains. Prior to television and radio, this pastime was a major form of entertainment. In fact, some of the first motion pictures about trains tickled audiences. Juicy stories, excessive violence and gratuitous nudity – not yet cinematic staples – took a back seat to raging locomotives. The whistle, the power and the frequency, they cut through the country. We love cars. I love cars. But only a crazy person sits atop a concrete median watching cars zoom past. “Stuck in horrendous traffic on the Garden State Parkway,” doesn’t conjure the same image as “I heard that lonesome whistle cry.” Though cars and planes supplanted trains, their status as music’s preferred form of transportation stayed. The symbol in song remained.

 

train scenic

I commuted by train for a few years. Though the train arrived at the same time every morning, there’d routinely be dopey stragglers, racing to catch it. Worst case scenario was getting pancaked. Thankfully, I never witnessed a fatality. What bothered me was the smugness of these cavalier individuals. They didn’t cherish their own lives. It was all a big joke. Sir or madam, please end it on your own time. Not mine. How about a late night freight train, when good working people don’t have to witness such horror? To avoid confrontation, I got lost in a book, cup of coffee or music. Train songs became my salvation. They were particularly meaningful. Soon I forgot the near-misses and the imagined weight on the conductor’s conscience. Music helped my rage subside. Retreating until the next morning when it happened all over again. All aboard.