If there is one thing that excites us as music fans, its thoughtful, well-researched historical concept albums. Southeast Engine, the Athens, Ohio, based band behind today’s train song, burst onto our radar with just such a record, 2011′s Canary. The album eloquently relates the plight of a family suffering through the Great Depression in the Appalachian mountains of SW Ohio. The band veers between rollicking up-tempo folk rockers and acoustic laments, and thanks to some skillful recycling of old musical traditions, an album that could quickly gotten either tedious or overly contrived, retains a sense of authenticity. Our new Appalachian locale has gotten us listening to Canary again, and further investigation turned up the band’s recently released 4-song EP, Canaanville, which continues the same theme as the album, and which contains C&O Railway.
C&O Railway relates the reminiscences of an old railroad worker standing on the tracks that he helped build. The C&O is the old Chesapeake and Ohio rail line, which pierced the Appalachian mountains, connecting its namesake regions in the decade after the Civil War. The song’s protagonist had helped “hammer down the mountains” to build the line, but from his current vantage point, the glories brought by the railroad had long passed his town by. The trains came for the region’s coal and timber, carrying away wealth and “fruits of our labor” before abandoning the town. The train haunts the narrator like a ghost and the old man stares at the old tracks feeling much like a ghost himself.
The song is so effective because it echoes a long and often-tortuous history of railroads (and economic development more broadly) in Appalachia. Throughout the region’s past, there has been a constant tension between the need to attract outside capital and investment to the impoverished region, and the desire that this development avoid exploitation, and that the wealth and bounties of Appalachia stay at home. Sadly, it was typically outside elites and foreign corporations that did the best in Appalachian economic “progress,” whether that meant coal mining, timber, or now, natural gas development. As the leading edge of outside investment, and the vehicle that carried off the region’s commodities, railroads perfectly symbolize this dilemma, so it is no surprise that railroads are often associated with darker imagery and the more tragic side of history, as they are in this song.