The Godfather: Peter Corris on train songs
Responding to my column about execution songs, an NRB reader made some suggestions and remarked that, for train songs, there were ‘300 and counting’. I’m sure there is a list somewhere on the web but I’m contenting myself with a few that I’ve become aware of over the years and that interest me.
‘Chatanooga Choo Choo’ was written by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon and first recorded by the Glen Miller Orchestra in 1941 with vocals by the Modernaires. I imagine that I first heard this as a child and was intrigued by the name of the town and the child-friendly ‘Choo Choo’. I heard it from time to over the following years and again recently. I still like the big band sound but I’ve realised what the lyrics imply: ‘Pardon me, boy, is that the Chatanooga Choo Choo?’ Following the affirmative response comes this: ‘Boy, you can give me a shine.’
Inescapably, the singer is addressing an African-American and, probably, an adult. The song is thus very much of its period. The singer expects to meet a girl wearing ‘satin and lace’, something not seen on a railway platform since …?
‘Rock Island Line’ was popularised by British skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan in 1955 and I listened to it on a radio hit parade, where it came across as a more or less comic song in which the authorities are tricked about the cargo being carried on a train. Much later I bought a 10-inch thirty-three and a third LP of songs by Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter). The liner notes told me that the song had been written by a member of a black singing group employed by the railroad. It was first recorded by musicologist John Lomax in the Arkansas State Prison in 1934. Leadbelly, who had served many prison years, recorded the song in 1937. With its heavy, thumping 12-string guitar backing it is far more rebellious than Donegan’s light-hearted version.
American country singers were popular on Australian radio, and somewhere around the early to mid-1950s I would’ve heard Hank Williams’s ‘I Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow’ and Hank Snow’s ‘Golden Rocket’. The first, written by Williams and Jimmie Davis and recorded in 1951, embodied two of the themes common to train songs – time in prison and the loss of a sweetheart. It’s noteworthy that historian and novelist Dee Brown drew on the iconic song for the title of his bestselling history of the Union Pacific railroad, Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow (1977).
Those same themes figure in Hank Snow’s ‘Golden Rocket’, recorded in 1950. It reached the top spot in US country charts. Snow used Elvis Presley as his warm-up act at the Grand Ole Opry, introduced Elvis to Colonel Tom Parker (Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) and was briefly part of his management team. Elvis recorded Snow’s song ‘(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I’ with far more energy than the original.
‘Mystery Train’, recorded by Elvis Presley in 1955 as a B-side, was one of a number of his songs originally performed by black singers (for example, ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘Hound Dog’). The song is based on an old ballad given a blues treatment by Junior Parker in 1953. I bought the 45 rpm disk somewhere around 1956/57 and played ‘Mystery Train’ much more than the A-side, ‘I Forgot to Remember to Forget’. Elvis’s versions of these kinds of songs were more positive in tone and lyrics than the blues renditions. Rolling Stone listed his version of ‘Mystery Train’ as Number 7 in the 200 best songs of all time. I selected it to be played on Margaret Throsby’s program on ABC Classic FM and believe it was the first time a rock/blues record was ever aired there.
Like many others I was a Johnny Cash enthusiast in the 1960s and two train songs by him – ‘Orange Blossom Special’ written in 1938, primarily as a song for fiddle accompaniment, and ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, written by Cash, have become classics. In bravura live performances Cash substituted two differently tuned harmonicas played alternatively, with high volume and energy, for the fiddle. The act brought the house down.
The version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ recorded live in the penitentiary in 1968 is remarkable for the adulation of the audience and for the whooping enthusiastic response when Cash sings ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’, suggesting that not all the inmates were on the rehabilitation road.
‘Love in Vain’, written by Robert Johnson – the ‘King of the Delta Blues’ – in 1937 and recorded as a B-side two years later, was covered by the Rolling Stones in 1969 on their album Let it Bleed. The lyrics are somewhat cryptic but the arrival and departure of a train figure in the lament, which may or may not be about lost love.
Unlike Elvis, the Stones left the blues format of songs like this and ‘Little Red Rooster’ intact, although their inclusion of a mandolin accompaniment by Ry Cooder would have puzzled Robert Johnson.
‘Big Train from Memphis’, included on John Fogerty’s 2009 Centerfield album, regrets the demise of a railroad: ‘It’s gone, gone, gone …’ – appropriate in the 21st century.
There are, of course, aeroplane songs, like ‘I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and ‘Silver Wings’ – but they don’t have the grunt of train songs.