Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Train Songs #4

Moving from the sublime of the historic election to a fictive railroad station filled with guitars, here’s the penultimate Train Songs list. If you’d like to see earlier lists, you can go to Train Songs #3 here, & also find links to #1 & #2. This list, as well as next week’s final list, are both a bit shorter than the first three. I’ve only included links for those musicians who haven’t appeared before in the Train Songs Series.

Enjoy, & don’t be shy about letting me know if there are train songs you like that you haven’t seen—you’ve seen almost all the list now.

· People Get Ready: Curtis Mayfield – The moving R&B anthem by the great Curtis Mayfield, & always primarily associated with his band the Impressions. Mayfield was one of those real innovators who is less known widely known than he should be, both for his songwriting & his guitar playing. Most folks know Mayfield—or should—
for his Super Fly soundtrack. You can hear the Impressions perform “People get Ready” on YouTube here; you can also hear a 1989 version done by Mayfield here. “People Get Ready” has been covered by everybody from Bob Dylan & Eva Cassidy to Aretha Franklin & Al Green: “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’….” A real song of hope & redemption. It seems fitting to kick off the list with this song after yesterday’s election….
· Queen of the Rails: Utah Phillips – A wonderful tearjerker about a hobo & his dog. The melody moves along at a delightfully perk clip while the lyrics tell a tale of companionship & loneliness—maybe all stories about companionship ultimately are about loneliness. Sometimes I find the combination of upbeat melody & sad lyrics annoyin
g; here it seems exactly right. By the by, that’s Utah in the pic below.
· Ramblin' Man: Hank Williams – About as much existential angst as you can pack into a two-chord song. Hank’s tale of the drifter has a chugging rhythm, his characteristic sliding into pitches, the inimitable haunted vocal quality: there’s also some great steel guitar backing this all up. My folks used to have this on a 78, & I can remember listening to it when I was just a wee lad.
· Rock Island Line: Leadbelly; Johnny Cash; Odetta & Larry – One thing these singers have in common (other than Larry, the banjoist with Odetta): they all have big voices that can send chills up your spine. Odetta actually may be the
most capable of that, which is saying a lot given how the other two can sing. For those who don’t know, Odetta has been a folk singer for about 50 years, & has one of the most remarkable singing voices you will ever hear. Larry (Larry Mohr) plays some nice banjo while accompanying Odetta on Odetta & Larry (recorded live in 1954 at San Francisco’s The Tin Angel), but his voice is pretty run of the mill & suffers in comparison with hers—but then, so would most people’s voices. The song, which is about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, was first recorded by Leadbelly in the 30s.
· Sentimental Journey: Les Brown – A big band standard, covered by lots of ensembles & lots of singers, notably Doris Day, for whom it was a #1 hit in 1
945. If Doris’ vocal stylings don’t float your boat, you might try the more sophisticated (to my ear) Rosemary Clooney from her 2001 Sentimental Journey album. This tune is lots of fun to play, with the quick chromatic chord changes. Of course, there’s also the 1946 tearjerker film of the same name, starring Maureen O’Hara (& with this song as its theme), not to mention the completely unrelated but hilarious 18th century novel by Laurence Sterne.
· She Caught the Katy: Taj Mahal – Taj Mahal is not only an extremely gifted singer & guitar player (both your standard issue & resonator—a National, natch’—& also talented on banjo, harmonica, piano, etc), he’s also a walking encyclopedia of blues & old-time music. I know his version of this song from a vinyl copy of his 1968 Nat
ch’l Blues; it’s available on cd for you folks who came late to the party. The Katy was the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad (Kansas-Texas=Katy), founded in 1870. It figures in another blues song, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Bad Luck Blues,” & also lent its name to Katy, TX, a Houston suburb, & to the Katy freeway.
· Shuffle Off To Buffalo: Roy Smeck; Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel et al – Great Harry Warren song from 42nd Street, with lyrics by Al Dubin that are delightfully naughty in a goofy 1930’s sort of way. Speaking of delightful (not to mention delightfully fetching) check out Ginger Rogers & Una Merkel during the big production number of this tune in the 1933 film version. Another great version of this song—not to mention a completely whacky one, is by the “Wizard of the Strings,” Roy Smeck. Smeck’s playing steel guitar, & along with his usually great solo work, he also transmogrifies the instrument into something like a hybrid of a train whistle & a wolf whistle.
· Spikedriver Blues: Mississippi John Hurt; Doc Watson – Another fingerpicking classic, with top-notch versions done by both Mississippi John Hurt & Doc Watson. Hurt is what it’s all about for me when I think of that old time blues finger
picking style. Everything about Hurt seemed relaxed—his playing, his warm, rich singing. Along with Reverend Gary Davis & a few others, Hurt really brought this style to the attention of the folkies—& we can be grateful for that, because his music is still available. He’d actually given up any thought of a recording career during the Depression; it wasn’t until the folkies traveled to Avalon, MS (they looked for him there based on his song “Avalon Blues”) & convinced Hurt they weren’t FBI agents that his career started back up in 1963, when he was around 70 years old.
· Starlight on the Rails: Utah Phillips - A quiet & beautiful Utah Phillips tune from his Good Though! album. It’s another song about loneliness, about the compulsion to be on the road & apart, & the losses that entails. Utah’s gets great back-up singing on this from Jane Voss. “Each year is like some rolling freight train, & cold as
starlight on the rails.”

Check in next week for the last installment!

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