Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Train Songs #3

Here’s installment three (of five) of the "Train Songs" series. If you missed them, you can find installments one & two here & here. Again, I’d love to hear about any train songs you like either in comments or by email.

· King of the Road: Roger Miller; R.E.M.– OK, this is both an obvious choice & a bit of a goofy song. But like many of Miller’s big 60s hits, it’s infectious, & fun to play. R.E.M. did a very boozy version of this on their Dead Letter Office album; you really do have to be at least a bit snookered to get lost in such a simple set of ch
ord changes, but I always got a kick out of this version. This song’s been covered by lots of folks.
· The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore: Jean Ritchie
(check out her own website, too, here); Michelle Shocked; Johnny Cash - From the ridiculous to the sublime—this is one of the songs Jean Ritchie wrote under the pseudonym of Than Hall. “The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore” is a moving song about a town in economic crisis as the coal mines close, & the train that used to carry the coal now just rolls past—the coal cars now are “standing rusty, rollin’ empty.” Ritchie has a great feel for the devastation that takes place when an industry leaves an area, even as she acknowledges the serious problems associated with natural resource industries (for instance, in her song “Black Water”). Both Michelle Shocked & Johnny Cash have done solid covers of this beautiful minor scale tune.
· Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad: The Carter Family; Bill Monroe– The definitive country gospel train-as-metaphor-for-life song; it’s been c
overed by lots of folks—the Carters & Monroe are simply among the best known (& among the best musicians). The song was written in the 19th century by Charles Tillman; the lyric is by a Baptist preacher named M.E. Abbey, who wrote the words in 1890. It’s also frequently called “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” I like it best at a slow to moderate tempo, but some bluegrass folks speed it up.
· Love In Vain: Robert Johnson – with all deference to the Rolling Stones, who do a credible cover of this tune, “Love in Vain” is a Robert Johnson song, period, end of sentence. Johnson's guitar playing & vocals are the very essence of delta blues.
· Midnight Special: Lead Belly – An interesting figure, Lead Belly—magnificent singer, & that big-voiced 12-string.... He was associated a lot with Seeg
er & the Weavers, etc., but he was way bluesier & edgier than the folkies—just listen to “Poor Howard” or the “Bourgeois Blues.” When Lead Belly wrote about prison, as in “Midnight Special,” (similar in theme to “Folsom Prison Blues”) he wrote the hard way, from first-hand experience. There’s a pic of Lead Belly at the bottom of this post.
· Mystery Train: Elvis Presley – OK, Elvis lovers, this is the one time the King makes it on the list. I’m actually a real fan of the rockabilly sides Presley did for Sun records, “Mystery Train” among them.
· Night Train: James Brown – “The hardest working man in show business” could take a song apart every which way, make it his own, & of course get folks dancing
—for my money about the greatest thing that can happen when performing music. James Brown was blessed with a powerful & exquisitely emotive voice & energy & dance moves to match; & I’m always blown away by the backing he got from his bands. If I had it all to do over again, one part of me would love to play bass or rhythm guitar in an R&B band.
· Nine Pound Hammer: Merle Travis – When you have a style of guitar playing named after you, you can be pretty sure you were darned good. What goes by the name of “Travis picking” is actually a bit different than what Merle actually played, but it sure is fun; & it’s always fun & instructive to listen to Travis. This song has been do
ne by lots of other folks, but it’s closely associated with the master country fingerpicker.
· Old Buddy, Goodnight: Utah Phillips - Recorded on his Good Though! album, “Old Buddy, Goodnight” is one of my favorites among Utah’s many wonderful songs. A heart-wrenching tale of loneliness, about hobos finding a dead & unknown hobo in a boxcar; the most memorable line: “There’s some thing’s worse than dying alone; one of them’s living that way.”
· On the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe: Tommy Dorsey; Johnny Mercer – a fun swing tune that’s been covered by lots of big bands, etc. Merc
er could really get folksy when the lyric called for it, but always in a slyly sophisticated way—music by the great Harry Warren of 42nd Street fame.
· One More Mile: Jean Ritchie – Another of Ritchie’s Than Hall songs. Ritchie has said she adopted the Than Hall pen name because she didn’t believe her compositions would be taken seriously under a woman’s name. There’s no question that Ritchie is an extremely talented composer, & it’s a shame this isn’t more widely recognized in old-time & country music circles. This song explores loneliness & isolation in married life thru the story of a railroad man who’s always abandoning his wife & child to go “one more mile.”
· Orange Blossom Special: Johnny Cash; Flatt & Scruggs – This song is associated with Cash, perhaps because of his version on the At Folsom Prison album, but of course it’s a traditional bluegrass tune that’s covered by folks you’ve heard
of & folks you never will, & everyone (bluegrass-wise) in between. These days it seems de rigueur to interpolate “The Flintstones Theme” into “Orange Blossom Special,” which is kind of fun. An odd jazz connection there: “The Flintstones Theme” is based on “rhythm changes,” the chord changes to Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” which underlie so many jazz compositions. So when “The Flintstones” make their way into “Orange Blossom Special,” this old country tune becomes a kissing cousin to bebop standards like Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning,” Parker’s “Moose the Mooch” (actually, a number of Parker’s tunes) & Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts.”

Two more installments in the "Train Songs" series
still to come...

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