FREIGHT TRAIN: You can’t have a list of blues train songs with including Elizabeth Cotten’s great song “Freight Train.” Perhaps it is stretching the definition of blues a bit—the song doesn’t fall into the standard 12-bar or 8-bar formats, & it isn’t built on a blues scale. No matter. It’s an iconic song by an extremely important artist.
Elizabeth Cotten was a musical prodigy; she played the banjo at seven & the guitar by age 11—we know she could play the guitar by that age, because that’s how old she was when she composed “Freight Train.”
The song isn’t about some imaginary train line either—tho it seems literal train lines have as much power to capture the imagination as imaginary ones would! Elizabeth Cotton grew up in Carrboro, North Carolina, a small town near the university town of Chapel Hill, & the Carrboro Branch line ran near her home. This short 10-mile line was founded in 1873 to serve a local iron mill. That venture failed, & the line has passed thru the ownership of a number of large railway companies, including the Southern Railway. The Carrboro line is still operating. It carries coal to the University of North Carolina’s Cogeneration Facility three times a week, & also transports other local freight.
If you’d like to read more about this marvelous guitar player, whose unique playing style was such an influence on folk guitar playing, you can read my earlier post about her in the Guitarists We Like series here. I should mention that Cotton’s style has been imitated but not really copied. She was left-handed & literally played the guitar upside-down & backwards, using her index finger to pluck the bass strings & her thumb to play the treble strings.
The video shows Ms Cotton on Pete Seeger’s old Rainbow Quest show. They play “Freight Train” as a duet, & she gives quite a detailed introduction. Elizabeth Cotten: Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (Smithsonian Folkways)
THE GONE DEAD TRAIN: Not very much is known about King Solomon Hill. He probably was born Joe Holmes in 1897, & took his later stage name from his address in Mississippi: King Solomon Hill Baptist Church. We do know that his playing was memorable & powerful, tho unfortunately he left behind only 8 tracks (a total of six songs, with two takes each of “Whoopee Blues” & “Down on Bended Knee”); we do know that the tracks were recorded for Paramount in Grafton, WI in 1932. It could be argued that “The Gone Dead Train” is the masterpiece among them.
Hill’s diction is difficult; he has a very thick Delta accent, & this combined with the condition of the recordings & his eerie falsetto make the lyrics a bit hard to understand. The song tells the story of a “death train”—a train on which hobos lost their lives, possibly from the cruelty of rail workers & possibly simply from the inherent danger of riding train hobo fashion. There were a few methods of doing this: perhaps the least dangerous was to ride in an empty boxcar, but there was always the danger of being locked in—& of course, it was an almost certain death sentence to try riding in a refrigerator car—a “reefer.” The other methods all involved some form of riding on the outside of the moving train. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, riding the blinds meant to ride on a train by riding on the front platform of a passenger car’s baggage car. There was also the practice of “riding the top”—laying down on the top of a moving car in such a way that you wouldn’t be thrown off at turns or by stops. Finally, the most dangerous method was to “ride the rods.” According to Jack London (who spent time as a hobo):
But to "ride the rods" requires nerve, and skill, and daring. And, by the way, there is but one rod, and it occurs on passenger coaches. Idiomatically, it becomes "rods," just as idiomatically we speak of "riding trains." .... A four-wheel truck is oblong in shape and is divided into halves by a cross-partition. What is true of one-half is true of the other half. Between this cross-partition and the axle is a small lateral rod, three to four feet in length, running parallel with both the partition and the axle. This is the rod. There is more often than not another rod, running longitudinally, the air-brake rod. These rods cross each other; but woe to the tyro who takes his seat on the brake-rod! It is not the rod, and the chance is large that the tyro's remains will worry and puzzle the county coroner.
This is a great blues song. You may be interested to know that King Solomon Hill used a cow bone as a slide! King Solomon Hill: Backwoods Blues (1926-1935) (Document)
GREEN RIVER BLUES: This great blues song is notewrothy on a number of counts. There’s been more than a little speculation that this may have been the song W.C. Handy heard at the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station in 1903 (tho if so, the version Handy heard was played slide style)—at any rate, Handy reported that the song he heard, which he described as "the weirdest music I had ever heard," contained the lyric “I'm goin' where the Southern cross the Dog” Ma Rainey also reported hearing a song with this lyric in 1904; in both cases, the experience contributed to a keen interest in the blues by two musicians who were crucial in the development of this music as a popular genre.
My thought (it's just a guess) is that it’s by no means certain the song they heard was “Green River Blues” per se—after all, this song is made up of “floating lyrics”—lyrics that recur in any number of songs, sometimes slightly altered to fit the context. In this case, the second, fourth & sixth verses all fit in that category, so it’s quite possible that the “Southern cross the Dog” verse does as well. Still, Charlie Patton was one of the early blues greats, & his repertoire no doubt contained very early material.
“I'm goin' where the Southern cross the Dog” is of course crucial to the song’s inclusion in our Christmas Train Songs list. The Southern Railway crossed the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley line in Moorhead, Mississippi. How did the rail line get the knickname of “the Dog,” tho?
The Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad was originally the Yazoo Delta Railroad, & its cars were marked with the initials “Y.D.” According to W.C. Handy, locals began to call the train the “Yellow Dog” because of those initials. Charlie Patton: The Best of Charlie Patton (Yazoo)
Pix from Top
4-6-0 Locomotive with coal car: by Wikipedia user Jonnic1, who graciously released it into the Public Domain
Reading 4-4-4 locomotive with coal car: Public Domain image from Wiki Commons
Photo of a man riding the roads: From Google Images - I assume this is in the Public Domain
Old photo of the intersection of the Southern & The Yazoo Delta Railroads at Moorhead, MS: From earlyblues.com; I assume this photo also is in the Public Domain