Thursday, October 16, 2008

Train Songs #2

Last Wednesday we looked at the first dozen train songs in a list I put together. Today we’re looking at a dozen more. Hope you enjoy reading the list, & thinking about it; if you have any train song ideas, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or drop me an email.

· Engine 143: The Carter Family; Townes Van Zandt (under the title “FFV”) - the Carter Family from the V
irginia hills have as much to do with the beginnings of country music as anyone, Jimmie Rodgers included. Their rugged & sincere vocals, Mother Maybelle Carter’s magnificent guitar playing (for which a whole style of guitar playing is named), the combination of musical sentimentality & stoicism all distinguish their style. Townes Van Zandt, a personal favorite did a version of this song on his 1971 Delta Mama Blues album. Steve Earle said Townes Van Zandt was “the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Van Zandt’s response reportedly was, “I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table.”
· Fireball Mail: Roy Acuff; Flatt & Scruggs – A fun up tempo number popularized by another of country’s old-time greats, Roy Acuff—also a
major performer on the stage of Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry from the 30’s on, & a big part of its success. Everyone who’s watched The Beverly Hillbillies knows Flatt & Scruggs (& isn’t that everyone? Pretty much the best TV show ever…); it would be near impossible to overstate their contributions to bluegrass music. Scruggs popularized what’s now known as “Scruggs picking” on the banjo, playing syncopated melodic rolls so the banjo could join the fiddle & mandolin as lead instruments; Flatt was a talented singer & a rock-solid rhythm guitar player—it’s mind boggling to think he was playing with a thumbpick & a fingerpick (like Mother Maybelle Carter) rather than with a flatpick as would be typical these days. Flatt also is credited with “the Flatt Run,” a tag or riff often used to either kick off or end bluegrass tunes.
· Folsom Prison Blues: Johnny Cash – The best country songs seem to come from no specific time; they feel & sound as though they could have been
written any time within the last 100 years. That’s the case with "Folsom Prison Blues," an obvious choice for the list, but one that’s impossible to overlook. I only saw “the Man in Black” live once—oddly (talking about this song), that was in Reno. Cash had as much stage presence as any performer I’ve ever seen.
· Freight Train Blues: Roy Acuff; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott - Another fun number popularized by Roy Acuff. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott did a high-spirited cover of this on his Kerouac’s Last Dream album. Ramblin’ Jack is an original—for all his cowboy persona,
he's a smallish guy from back east, who got his name not from hoboing, but because he has a reputation for garrulousness. Whatever—Ramblin' Jack is the real deal, a fine guitar player & an energetic singer who really knows how to live inside a song.
· Freight Train: Elizabeth Cotton - & every guitar picker who’s ever tried to finger pick. It’s the first finger picking song many of us learn—few if any do it as well as Cotton. An interesting fact: Cotton was left handed, & she turned the guitar upside down so her thumb was playing the high strings & her index finger played the bass notes. It’s a bit like a style of old-time banjo playing (which often uses the thumb for melody, & Cotton also played the banjo), but then not really, since the banjo has a high-pitched drone string. Cotton was a guitar player of the first order—rags, blues, gospel, she could play them all. That's Elizabeth Cotton in the pic below.
· Frisco Road: Utah Phillips – Utah could sing about tr
ains, no doubt. His Good Though! album is as fine a collection of train songs as you’ll find. This song alternates between the exhilaration a hobo feels at riding the rails & the loneliness he feels from having no attachments.
· Hear My Train a Comin': Jimi Hendrix – Waaaay back when, in my misguided & often chemically addled youth, I was a Hendrix fan. No doubt about it, the man could play the guitar, & was a much better singer than he’s given credit for. Yeah, I have a problem with the dead rock star legend stuff, I’ll admit it. But this is a hot track with great call & response between voice & guitar, & is worth a listen.
· Hobo's Meditation: Jimmie Rogers – Only time Jimmie appears on this week’s list; this also was covered by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris & Linda
Ronstadt on the Trio album. I really like this song—a sad waltz with a chord progression that moves around just enough to make it interesting—“Will there be any freight trains in heaven” indeed….
· I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Hank Williams- When I say Hank Williams, I don’t mean Jr. or III—I mean the Hank Williams. This is one of those deceptively simple songs—fun to play & sing in a jam session, easy to follow along. Lots of folks do it: Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash et al. Our good pal & Spurs of the Moment bandmate Chris Leone does a nice version of this—I’ve been known to croak the song out, too. But no matter how good or bad the singer may be, I’ve never heard anyone who can make your hair stand on end singing this song like Hank could.

· I’m Movin’ On: Hank Snow – This was a big hit for the “Singing Ranger” in 1950. Snow is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, though perhaps not as well known anymore as some of the other honky tonk country singers of his day. “I’m Movin’ On” has got that great “train movement” rhythm, but my personal favorite Snow song (& one of my all-time favorite country songs) is “Yellow Roses.”
· If Love was a Train: Michelle Shocked – Michelle Shocked has always had a great spirit in her playing & singing, & it really comes across in this up tempo number from her Short, Sharp, Shocked album. “If Love Was a Train” was an unlikely chart hit in 1988, getting lots of play on college radio stations.
· It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry: Bob Dylan – Some folk love him, some folks don’t; some musicians I really respect have little use for Bob, but I still think he’s a first-rate songwriter. This is a pseudo blues from the great Highwa
y 61 Revisited (I say “pseudo” because it doesn’t follow a normal blues chord progression)—the lyrics, as often with the best of Dylan, exist in a world somewhere between the traditional & the surreal. Dylan himself said of the Highway 61 Revisited album, "I'm not gonna be able to make a record better than that one... Highway 61 is just too good. There's a lot of stuff on there that I would listen to." Some dynamite back-up musicians on the album, like Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper, just to name two.

Check in next week for installment number three!

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