Trains criss-cross the musical landscape like nothing else. Blues, country and jazz are especially prone to a song about trains as the genres were dominant in our culture before the decline of the railroads. And these trains always bear a lot of symbolic freight – from separations to reunions, deaths to dance moves (remember Little Eva’s LOCOMOTION anyone?). We opened the show with Gove Scrivenor singing I’VE GOT A THING ABOUT TRAINS. Join the club Gove! My Dad was a railway worker and so trains hold a certain sentimental fascination for me too.
The classic song MYSTERY TRAIN is evocative enough to have inspired one of my favourite films by Jim Jarmusch. How could you go wrong with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer and Tom Waits in the cast? Elvis’ version of the song MYSTERY TRAIN gave the tune a strong injection of optimism but, before the King got hold of it, Little Junior’s Blue Flames made the tune a spooky piece of work.
Trains have particular resonance in black music: trains to heaven, trains to hell, and trains to freedom. The O’Jays’ LOVE TRAIN is a, very funky, utopian call for global unity. Check out this great video clip: its from the television show ‘Soul Train’ and its the weekly line dance, using the O’Jays music. The year was 1973. Loving the hair, the outfits….
The Staple Singers gospel song, THIS TRAIN, is “bound for glory”, but not, please note, if you’re a gambler or a midnight rambler. Less restricting is Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions with PEOPLE GET READY. And I can’t get enough of The Ethiopians as they ride an unstoppable bassline all the way to Skaville.
And, just to prove that songs about Trains are in favour across all genres and generations, Michelle Shocked delivered a goodie that uses the train symbolically: IF LOVE WAS A TRAIN. (According to Michelle, she’d be a slow one –excellent!). Soul Asylum followed with RUNAWAY TRAIN and then it was Sarah McLachlan with the fantastic song TRAIN WRECK from her Afterglow album. Check out this live performance:
We played Arlo Guthrie’s version of THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS. Steve Goodman wrote the song in 1970. He was actually on the train and wrote about what he saw looking out of the window and while playing cards in the club car. Everything in the song happened on the ride. When he returned home he heard that the train was going to be taken out of service, due to a lack of passengers. He reworked the lyrics a bit and used the song to save the train. Arlo Guthrie’s cover in 1972 brought attention to rail lines that were vanishing across middle America when people, who lived in rural areas, relied on trains to travel.
Railroad songs are populated by a colorful assortment of characters: heroes, outlaws and lovers to name a few. But one of the most enduring, especially in country music, is the humble hobo. The itinerant “wanderer” has been a recurring character throughout history but the railroads presented him with the opportunity to cover vast expanses of territory in relatively little time. For many, the urge to hop a train and ride it as far as it would take them was a form of wanderlust too powerful to resist. For others, the rails offered a way out of desperate situations. Whatever the reason, railroads – and hobos – provided plenty of material for good song lyrics.
Jimmy Rodgers got his material first hand. The son of a railway worker, he went to work as a “water boy” on the trains at age fourteen. His song WAITING FOR THE TRAIN, was recorded in the early 1930s. It captures the hobo’s feelings of loneliness beautifully. Another hobo classic followed: I GOT THE BOXCAR BLUES from Boxcar Willie.
The Guns & Roses song NIGHT TRAIN is only slightly connected to Trains. A a tribute to an infamous brand of cheap Californian wine called NIGHT TRAIN EXPRESS, it was extremely popular with the band during their early days – mainly because of its low price and high alcohol content. However, on this clip from a live performance in 1988, they profess in their intro that its not about drugs and drink, but about a ‘walk in the park’. Uh huh. Check it out:
Big Joe Turner is hoping that the MIDNIGHT SPECIAL will bring his baby back to him. And Otis Rush is also a bit despondent: There are SO MANY ROADS and SO MANY TRAINS to ride before he can find his baby again. No matter what the lyrics seem to say, all our train songs today had one thing in common: they use the train journey as a metaphor for life.
Our last song of the day took me back to my back-packing days: Crosby Stills & Nash with MARRAKESH EXPRESS. Here’s a BBC clip of Graham Nash and David Crosby (not sure why Stills wasn’t there). Sweet stuff.
Next week, its PLANES.
Here’s this week’s complete playlist:
I’ve Got A Thing About Trains – Gove Scrivenor
Mystery Train – Little Junior Parker & His Blue Flames
The Train (Feat Scar & Sleepy Brown) – Outkast
Love Train – Ojays
This Train – The Staple Singers
People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions
Train To Skaville – The Ethiopians
If Love Was a Train – Michelle Shocked
Runaway Train – Soul Aslyum
Train Wreck – Sarah McLachlan
The City of New Orleans – Arlo Guthrie
Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
That Train Don’t Stop Here – Ruth Brown
Last Train to Clarksville – The Monkees
Waiting For A Train – Jimmy Rodgers
I Got The Boxcar Blues – Boxcar Willie
Engine Number Nine – Wilson Pickett
Party Train – The Dazz Band
Midnight Train To Georgia – Gladys Knight and the Pips
Jumping Someone Else’s Train – The Cure
Night Train – Guns N’ Roses
Midnight Special Train – Big Joe Turner
So Many Roads, So Many Trains – Otis Rush
Hear My Train A-Comin’ – Jimi Hendrix
Long Train Runnin’ – The Doobie Brothers
Marrakesh Express – Crosby, Stills & Nash
Listen to Lyn McCarthy at the Theme Park on BayFM Tuesdays 2-4pm (Sydney time). Also streaming at http://www.bayfm.org
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Posted on August 11, 2009, in Broadcasting and media, community radio, music - nostalgia, music, blues, music, country, music, r&b, music, soul, Radio Program, Uncategorized and tagged Australia, Blues, Byron Bay, country, Crosby Stills & Nash, Guns & Roses, hip-hop, music, O'Jays, pop, R&B, radio, rock 'n' roll, Sarah Mclachlan, soul, Theme music, Trains. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.