Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The (Blues) Christmas Train #1

The Yuletide season is upon us, & what better way to celebrate it musically than with blues songs about trains! Now before you think this is just a crackpot idea, consider: what puts you in mind of Christmas morning more than a train set circling the tree? In fact, one of the earliest toys I remember was an HO train set that my father assembled on a sheet of plywood. I loved to watch the train go around its long loop.

Perhaps becuase of this memory, I've harbored a wish for a model train for years, but I never acted on it until a couple of weeks ago when we were visiting our dear friend & ex-Alice in Wonder Band singer Deadre Chase in her fabric shop in McCall. In addition to her beautiful hand-painted fabrics, she always has some used knick-knacks on hand, & that week, she had an N-scale model train set for a price that couldn’t be beat. As a result, I am now the proud owner of said set as an early Christmas present (Eberle also got an early present that one or both of us will write about soon).

So this month’s song series combines two loves: blues music & railroads! I’ll be going into a bit more depth on the songs, especially in terms of railroad lore suggested by the lyrics, so I’ll only write up three songs per post. The posts will come each Wednesday, as well as Friday the 11th & Christmas morning!

& there’s a bonus this week—I’ll be writing about Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink of Water,” on Just a Song—the post should be up by mid morning here in western US time. It's not only about trains; it’s one of the most haunting blues songs I know. But in the meantime, hope you enjoy these.

B & O BLUES: The B&O is the Baltimore & Ohio, one of the earliest U.S. lines, with the first
section opening in 1830. It’s also represented in the game Monopoly (between Illinois & Atlantic Avenues), despite the fact that the B&O didn’t service Atlantic City. In fact the railroad ran from New York to St Louis, tho its headquarters were in Baltimore; the B&O also had branch lines that serviced Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland & Chicago. How a song about this rail line became so associated with Georgia blues singers is anyone’s guess; some attribute the song’s composition to the great Blind Willie McTell, who recorded it during a 1933 session in New York City; another Georgia bluesman, Buddy Moss, also recorded it in 1933; that’s the version in the accompanying video. Interstingly, there’s another song called “The B&O Blues” by yet another Georgia blues musician, Bumble Bee Slim, but this has a different melody & different lyrics. Blind Willie McTell: The Best of Blind Willie McTell (Yazoo); Buddy Moss: Complete Recordings, Vol. 2: 1933-1934 (Document)

BAD LUCK BLUES: Blind Lemon Jefferson catalogs a host of woes in “Bad Luck Blues”—he lost
his money at cards, his “some joker” stole off with his “long-haired gal,” & he hasn’t seen his “sugar in three long weeks.” In the midst of this there are a couple of verses in which Blind Lemon sings about catching the Santa Fe (pronounced “Fee,” as is often the case in traditional music), while his “sugar” will catch the Katy. Of course, these are both train lines. The Santa Fe, also known as the Atcheson, Topeka & the Santa Fe (in yet another song) is another old line, with its charter dating to 1859. From the Texas shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the train worked its way up across Oklahoma & Kansas & into Colorado. The Katy is the standard slang for the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad, in the past often referred to as the K-T, & by extension, as the Katy. This train line also comes up in the great Yank Rachell song, “She Caught the Katy (& Left Me a Mule to Ride”), popularized by both Taj Mahal & the Blues Brothers. The Katy also began its ride northward from Texas’ Gulf Coast, but it turned eastward, travelling thru eastern Oklahoma & Kansas, & on to Missouri. Sounds like Blind Lemon & his sugar are going in different directions! Blind Lemon Jefferson: Blind Lemon Jefferson (Milestone)

BROKE DOWN ENGINE: We hear about driving wheels in a number of traditional songs—
specifically, about locomotives that have no driving wheel. But what is the train engines driving wheel? Actually, it’s always plural, of course, since you have to have an even number of wheels with two per axle. The driving wheels are the large wheels you see on a locomotive—on old passenger trains the driving wheels could be up to 100 inches in diameter, with driving wheels on freight trains topping off at around 60 inches in diameter. According to the pithy Wikipedia definition:
On a steam locomotive, a driving wheel is a powered wheel which is driven by the locomotive's pistons (or turbine, in the case of a steam turbine locomotive)….On Diesel and Electric locomotives the driving wheels may be directly driven by the traction motors.

The driving wheels are connected to the pistons by a series of roads, tho the diesel & electric locomotives often have separate motors for each driving wheel. Let’s put it this way: if the locomotive has a lost or broken driving wheel, it’s not going anywhere—& in Blind Willie’s case, to add insult to injury, he “ain't got no whistle or bell.” Blind Willie McTell: The Best of Blind Willie McTell (Yazoo)

Pix from Top
N Scale Santa Fe locomotive: posted to Wiki Commons by Winius under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's Columbian in 1949: Public Domain photo from Wiki Commons
A Katy locomotive: Posted to Wiki Commons by Sean Lamb under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license
Driving Wheels from a 4-6-2 locomotive: Public Domain image from Wikipedia

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  1. I love trains, too. I'm glad you got your train set. Now you need an engineer's cap, and you're all set.

    Great train songs.

  2. Hi Jacqueline: Thanks! I'm looking forward to getting a layout underway--quite a bit of work, but fun. An engineer's hat--maybe! At least a baseball cap with some train line logo.

  3. Funny, how things that happen in childhood stay with us like that. My dad took me canoeing and built sailing dinghies. I still get a sort of twinge when I think about or see boats. So far I've resisted the urge! (The smell of a new guitar's soundbox gets me thinking, too - its just like the smell of making wooden boats).

  4. hi John.I,ve been AWOL.Much catching up to do!
    My! Those Blues videos look tasty!

  5. Thanks for filling me in on the definition of a driving wheel. I've always wondered.

  6. Hi Dominic, Tony & K

    Dominic: The soundbox thing is very interesting. Yes, it's kind of amazing how the train stuck with me--it was simply a track on a sheet of plywood--no scenary or buildings. But it did.

    Tony: It's always great to see you. I know you've been busy & probably dreaming of Italy! Hope you liked the tunes.

    K: That's what my friend Bernie Jungle said on FB!


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