The Song of the Rails

17 04 2012

Railroads have had more than their share of influence over our popular culture. Nowhere is that easier to see than in our music. Since their arrival in the 1830s, trains have chuffed, chugged and locomotioned their way into song. Sometimes the songs are about the trains themselves, often the train is a metaphor for something larger. From Bluegrass to Folk to Rock and Roll, the rhythm of the rails remains a popular theme in our music to this day.

Songs About Trains

goodbye

Trains became part of our popular culture as they became part of our daily lives.

The number of tunes which make mention of trains is too great to count. We’ve had Crazy Trains, Love Trains, Peace Trains, Party Trains, Ghost Trains, Leavin’ Trains, Mystery Trains, Downbound Trains, Runaway Trains, Fast Trains, Slow Trains, Last Trains even Soul Trains. From the 3:10 to Yuma and to the Midnight Train to Georgia, Engine #9 to the Little Red Caboose, for the engineer, conductor, gandy dancer, porter and hobo, from the station to the subway to the endless miles of lonely rails, whether you Take the A Train or the Last Train to Clarksville, if you are connected to trains there is a ballad for you.

Elvis

Trains and music go hand in hand - so commemorative cars like this Lionel Elvis train are a natural fit.

From childhood classics to spirituals, to modern dance jams, whether it is just an extension of the fascination with trains or the 4/4 timing and rhythm of a steam locomotive – a train just lends itself well to music. What is even more amazing is the number of songs written not just about trains, but about specific railroads, trains, wrecks and events.

From the Wreck of the Ol’ 97 to the Orange Blossom Special, many popular songs have come from specific trains and railroads. Trains were the way we traveled and connected and events on the rails were national events. Some songs helped shape the way the world looked at railroads and railroaders. The Ballad of Casey Jones forever changed the way an engineer and a tragic-but-preventable accident are remembered.

train in the distance

"Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance." - Paul Simon

Not only the songs, but many artists have made trains a part of their public persona. Johnny Cash, Rod Stuart and of course, Niel Young come to mind almost immediately when we think of railroads and musicians.

One song became so popular that a railroad named a train after it! The Wabash Cannonball was so popular that the Wabash renamed its flagship train between Detroit and St. Louis in 1949. The origins of the song date from 1882 and 1904 and its popularity began to skyrocket in the 1930s with recordings by the Carter Family and Roy Acuff.

The Train as a Symbol

Perhaps Paul Simon sums it up best, “There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.” Of course that long, low whistle has been

moonlight

The railroad has become part of our landscape, both physical and cultural.

interpreted as mournful and foreboding as well. The image of a train has been used for everything from death to freedom. It has been a journey home and a ticket to a new life. It has been both nostalgic and a new beginning.City of New Orleans is a song about an Illinois Central train, but really speaks more to the troubles of America as a whole. In Bruce Springsteen’s Land of Hope and Dreams, the train extolls the best of American values and ideals. The freedom of a train is a much more painful longing in Johnny Cash’s classic Folsom Prison Blues. In Josh Turner’s contemporary country classic Long Black Train it is temptation.

What are your favorite train songs? Which of the ones we mentioned here will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day?

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