Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Train Songs #1

Hey kids, a new series for your reading pleasure! I’ve been obsessed with train songs for years—maybe since I used to listen to my parents’ 78 of Hank Williams singing “Ramblin’ Man” as a 5-year-old; not sure that much existential angst is good for a developing mind, but anyhoo….

So I found a list of train songs on the web—it’s a loooong & fairly complete list, though oddly its compiler claims not to know most of the songs—makes you kinda wonder why he put the list together…. But I’m glad he did, because it got me thinking about the train songs I like the best, so then I compiled a list, & it also was long, but not as long as the original. So I’m dishing my list out in sections of around 10-12 songs per installment, with commentary. Please feel free to comment or drop me a line about any train songs you especially love. The lists will appear in alphabetical order, simply because that’s the way I’m wired.


· Ben Dewberry's Last Ride: Jimmie Rodgers – Of course you have to start off with the “Singing Brakeman,” the father of country music. Rodgers is interesting for lots of reasons, not least of which he being that his career was back in the day when the radio-ready music genres weren’t really well defined—so, for instance, Rodgers played with Louis Armstrong & Lil Hardin, while also being a “country” star. Plus, there’s occasionally uke on his records, which you don’t hear a lot in country music anymore. As far as Ben Dewberry's Last Ride goes—well, train travel isn’t 100% safe….
· Blue Railroad Train: The Delmore Brothers, Doc Watson – The Delmore Brothers (Alton & Rabon) were one of those great old duet acts like the B
lue Sky Boys & the later Louvin Brothers. The Delmores often added a “bluesy” sound to their tunes—another great example of this is The Brown’s Ferry Blues, which is also great fun to play clawhammer style on the banjo. Another great fact about the Delmores: Rabon’s instrument was the tenor guitar. As far as Doc Watson goes, between singing & instrumental ability (on either guitar or banjo), he’s about the best old-time musician around.
· Blue Yodel No. 5: Jimmie Rodgers – More Jimmie Rodgers, who often worked with straightforward 12-bar blues progressions, as in this tune. An interesting tidbit about Roberts: he played almost exclusively in the keys of C & G, & either capoed up or occasionally tuned down his guitar to fit his singing range. He composed several “Blue Yodels,” the most famous one being “Blue Yodel No. 1,” or “T for Texas.” As far as the “blue” part goes, these tunes were more or less 12-bar blues in their structure—as far as “yodel” g
oes, Jimmie loved to do it, did it well, & used it a lot as a transition point in his songs. Blue Yodel No. 5 is also intriguing for using of ending with the following statement (after singing a blues song): “Makes no diff’rence what I need, I’ll never sing the blues.”
· The Brakeman’s Blues: Jimmie Rodgers – Hang in there, folks—the list isn’t all Jimmie Rodgers. The point of this tune is that all places are the same to a man who’s working on the railroad.

· Cannonball Blues: A beautiful old Carter Family tune, also covered by Utah Phillips as one of those songs where he sings a verse & then launches into one of his trademark hilarious monologues on everything from the Old West to politics. When A.P. Carter sings “Baby’s gone, she’s solid gone,” there’s something heartbreaking in his matter-of-fact voice.
· Chattanooga Choo Choo: Glen Miller - & you thought they were all going to be country songs. I love this tune, & Eberle & I have played it in our Five & Dime Jazz incarnation. She came up with a whacked-out melodica train whistle part, & I just change chords as fast as my fingers can go on the tenor guitar.
· Choo Choo Ch’Boogie: Louis Jordan, a wild genius who could really swing, & may have invented rock & roll along the way (Chuck Berry counted Jordan as a hero & influence). His version of Choo Choo Ch’Boogie stayed on top of Billboard’s R&
B charts for 18 weeks. Asleep at the Wheel did a great version of this song, too—this is quintessential hobo swing.
· City of New Orleans: OK, an obvious choice, but Steve Goodman’s song is great—fun, moving, hummable. Too bad it got picked up as the theme for a morning talk show, but what can you do? The Arlo Guthrie version is great, & so’s the Willie Nelson version—but lots of folks have covered this one.

· Daddy, What's a Train?: Utah Phillips - Kind of related to “City of New Orleans” in an odd way—both songs are about the “disappearing railroad blues.” Phillips’ song laments—in a very light-hearted way—how kids are no longer enchanted by trains, & by extension, how they have no cultural memory. One of Utah’s most profound insights: “The past didn’t go anywhere, did it?”
· Desperadoes Waiting for a Train: Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker – What a glorious & sad song—the kid & the surrogate father; a tale of bonding & loss written by the fantastic songwriter, Guy Clark. I saw Guy Clark at Yoshi’s in Oakland (a jazz
club of all places), & he said this is a true story. I love to play & sing this myself, & also to hear Clark or Jerry Jeff perform it.
· Down There By the Train: Johnny Cash – Cash does a killer version of this on his first American Songs album; a haunting song about redemption, actually written by Tom Waits. I don’t believe Waits has ever recorded this.
· Driver 8: R.E.M. – Yeah, there’ll be a few rockers thrown in. I was a huge R.E.M. fan back in the Charlottesville days—lots of folks (& especially many of the pretty gals) were. But R.E.M. had a great energy, & they put Athens, GA on the map. Of course, though I’ve heard this song hundreds of times (not recently, I admit), I don’t really know what it’s about, except there’s definitely a train in it—a combination of the surreal lyrics & the fact that although Michael Stipe has many strengths as a singer, enunciation is not one
of them.

Check in next week for the next installament!

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