I’ve always loved trains and music. When I was little, I thought Aretha Franklin was singing “Train train train/train of fools.” Back then, if you enjoyed model trains, you could cover their toy-like whirring by plopping a platter of train songs on your turntable. “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/He sounds too blue to fly,” Hank Williams wailed while your Lionels raced in circles. “The midnight train is whining low/I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
Today, everything in the model-train hobby is digitized, even the audio. Realistic locomotive chuffing sounds are synchronized with the pace of the train. Livestock cars that are supposed to be carrying cows actually moo. If you run your train too fast, the cows moo in concern; take a turn at top speed and they really get aggravated. It’s the same with the clucking chicken car, the oinking pig car, and the breaking china car (the faster you go, the more merchandise you lose).
There is also a “haunted” boxcar. The manufacturers of these models claim they are digitized from “real-life recordings,” but in the case of the haunted boxcar I suspect some liberties were taken.
You may laugh at a boxcar full of angry ghosts, but this is a huge improvement over running your trains while listening to Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, or even Little Eva singing “Do the Loco-Motion.” These artists deserve our respect, but they’re not singing about actual trains. Nobody does, and with good reason. Who wants to wade through a lyric like this:
Man oh man, there goes a string of six-wheel SD90MACs
My train-spotter app says they’re heading for the Adirondacks
I’ve counted 30 cars of wheat and 60 full of red rocks
I spoke to a woman once, but she called the cops
(Record companies: If you’re digging this, contact my agent.)
So what then are train songs about? Is the best we can hope for the B.T. Express singing “Chug, chug, chug”? For the first time in the history of ethnomusicology, I present the four main categories of train songs. All aboard!
Just kidding. There are no train songs about sex. “The Train Kept a Rollin’” sounds promising, but the song is about being too shy to tell a woman you love her. Even Aerosmith, Lords of the Hair Dyes, couldn’t inject any canoodling into that one. The Psychedelic Furs’ “Into You Like a Train” is not a nod to the final scene of North By Northwest, when Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant embrace in their sleeping compartment and Hitchcock cuts to a train disappearing into a tunnel. The song is about loving you just the way you are.
The Monkees, of all people, came close. “Last Train to Clarksville” portrays life in the era before all passenger service was consolidated into Amtrak, when you and your lover could conveniently use passenger trains for one more night together, with “coffee-flavored kisses/and a bit of conversation.” Michelle Shocked’s “If Love Was a Train” might qualify given its opening line: “If love was a train I think I would ride a slow one/One that would ride through the night making every stop.” But any insinuation of sex stops there.
Generally, sex is what happens in the back of a car, though there is somehow no sex in Big Star’s “Back of a Car.”
“Into You Like a Train” and “If Love Was a Train” fall into this category, as does Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains”: “I often dream of trains when I’m with you/I wonder if you dream about them, too.”
Relationship songs that feature trains are about the search for true love. Trains ride forever without ever arriving or don’t go anywhere because they have no engine. Most songwriters find other ways to illustrate this theme; trains are not hip enough for pop songs. Anyone old enough can buy a car, drive it, and play loud music; you can’t do that with a 200-ton diesel engine that only runs on rails. That’s why the first rock ’n’ roll song was called “Rocket 88” and not “3:10 to Yuma.”
- Work/Life Balance
What wrecked Casey Jones’ train? His employer’s unreasonable demands to keep the trains running on time. Jones was driving far too fast with limited visibility. If only the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen had been strong enough back then to fight for mandatory rest breaks and safety inspections. Surely they would’ve staged an intervention for the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones,” who wasn’t watching his speed because he was high on cocaine.
The best work/life balance train song is either “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” or the Folksmen’s “Blood on the Coal,” featuring the sad yet inevitable fate of the Irishman named Murphy, the ultimate work martyr.
Trains are always hauling people off to the afterlife. There are not one but two such songs on Johnny Cash’s posthumous album, American V: A Hundred Highways. One for his late wife, June (“On the Evening Train”), and one for Johnny:
Take me to the depot, put me to bed
Blow an electric fan on my gnarly old head
Everybody take a look, see I’m doing fine
Then load my box on the 309
Trains can stand in for a desire to escape (Stan Ridgway’s “God Lives in a Caboose,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Cross-Tie Walker”) or the fear that there is no escape (Bruce Springsteen’s “Downbound Train”). Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” is the standout in the metaphor category. It is at once a novel about the people who ride trains and a meditation on what this particular train – or rather, this route, because the equipment doesn’t matter – means to America.
The O’Jays’ “Love Train” may not boast a metaphor, but it is easily the happiest train song of them all. Join hands. Don’t you know that it’s time to get on board?
Visit Wikipedia for a list of the 1,000 Greatest Train Songs You Should Hear Before You Die.
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/Brett Sayles.