Lucero – Union Pacific Line

So I realize that despite the diversity of genres in which trains appear, this blog has been in a bit of an alt.country/no depression/americana rut lately, and this post will keep up this trend, but I can’t resist writing about a brand spanking new train song from one of my all-time favorite bands.  Lucero are based in Memphis, and though they have roots in the punk scene, they have become masters of tear-in-your-beer alt.country that retains a bit of punk spirit. Ben Nichols’s world weary, raspy vocals are always a highlight, but the twisting and turning guitar work should also not be overlooked. My personal favorite of theirs, 2003’s That Much Further West, ebbs and flows, from slow meandering tales of lost love to rousing affirmations and declarations – a rare record that can fit both a night of quiet contemplation and a destructive night out on the town.

The new EP, Texas & Tennessee is a fantastic throw-back to the band’s earlier days, before the horns, pianos and Memphis-style arrangements of recent albums like 1372 Overton Park, and Women and Work.  The formula is simple – Ben Nichols singing raspily about heartbreak and loss, with an acoustic guitar backdrop.  The four songs off Texas and Tennessee could easily fit on the bands first two records. Who knows if this signals a new direction for the band, or just a simple diversion, but the stripped-down sound certainly suits the band.

But enough about Lucero, lets get to the trains.  Union Pacific Line uses trains in a fairly common way – to convey a growing sense of distance in a floundering relationship.  A simple pounding drum beat lends the song a sense of momentum and prevents it from becoming a total bummer. The Union Pacific line is one of America’s most famous, making up one half of the first transcontinental railroad.  The sprawling line evokes the wide-open spaces of the west, as well as the great space between the narrator and his love. The image of continually leaving trains captures the ambiguity of the relationship and the failure of the narrator to get over his lover.  So we can add yet another song to what is becoming a common trend here – trains-as-relationship-destroyers.

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Justin Townes Earle – Ghost of Virginia

Justin Townes Earle has garnered heaps of critical praise for the way in which he effortlessly blends Americana musical traditions, with a contemporary sensibility and a flair for showmanship. Covers of obscure old country and folk songs are a standard in his set lists, so it should thus be no surprise that trains, a favorite topic of the original generation of country music singers, show up all throughout his discography. Ghost of Virginia is perhaps my favorite train song of his, both lyrically and musically, but it will certainly not be the last one featured here. The live video above comes from an excellent playlist of youtube videos, which all record an energetic live performance by Earle.

Though the song is an original, the subject matter and Earle’s arrangement mean its not much of a stretch to imagine a song like this on the tongues of the Appalachian balladeers of old.  The imagery of the lyrics is great – from the cold, black steel of the train and the smoke billowing out of the wheels, to the screaming sound, and the surrounding pine trees along the route. Not only is it a train song, its also a Civil War song, as the train travels the route between Raleigh and Richmond, a route that was so vital to the war effort, that the Confederate government had to forcibly shift the gauge of the North Carolina Railroad to match the gauge of capital’s Richmond & Danville line. The air of mystery about the ghost train – the second-hand rumors of its appearance, suggestions that it either is atoning for a wreck, or gathering up lost souls on its way South – only adds to the mythology of the song.

Ghost trains are a fascinating topic that probably deserve a post here in their own right, but for now its worth at least mentioning a interesting example from North Carolina that shares some characteristics with the Ghost of Virginia.  Every year on the anniversary of a train wreck in 1891 a ghost train allegedly appears on Bostian’s Bridge, just outside of Statesville. Like Earle’s Ghost of Virginia, this ghost train is linked with an awful wreck.  Witnesses claim to see and hear the train passing over the bridge, and some have also claimed to see spectral baggage men or other crew members.  The ghost train made the news after ghost hunters on the track tragically encountered an actual train on the still-active line in 2010.

And I have at least some evidence that ghost trains were a 19th century phenomena as well. This 1881 article in the Railway Gazette noted the appearance of one in Georgia. A man claimed to see an approaching engine along the path of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, but he heard no sound. The man also described a “pale, wide-eyed engineer,” and the “ghostly, phantom-like” machinery.  So while there is certainly much more to be written about ghost trains, for now its safe to say that Ghost of Virginia is a great encapsulation of strands of both folklore and actual history – another reason why Justin Townes Earle is one of my favorite songwriters.

Whiskey & Co. – Southbound Train

Figured it was about time to give a nod to some local (which for me at the moment is Gainesville, Florida) train songs. Relating tales of epic binges, drunken wanderings and general debauchery, Whiskey & Co. are on No Idea Records, and their discography is mainly centered on wayward and inebriated nights out in Gainesville, an appropriately whiskey-soaked college town. I have seen them live a few times and they never fail to inspire beer-in-the-air singalongs from the crowd.  Stylistically they combine the fuck-it-all/DIY/whatever-you-want-to-call-it sensibilities of the fertile Gainesville punk scene with alt-country. Close musical compatriots to them would be Lucero or Uncle Tupelo, and the excellent female-fronted vocals add a nice extra dimension.

Southbound Train relates the story of a ride on a train traveling South, which is definitely the most common direction one usually ends up going in a train song. The train ride is used to tell the tale of a lost love, a common trope for songs about traveling on southbound trains, before the band returns to their usual themes of being drunk in Gainesville. The narrator copes with a bottle of alcohol, lamenting how they are drinking themselves to death in a one-horse town. As someone who has spent about 6 years here, this place sadly does resemble a one-horse town at times. All-in-all its a pretty standard train song, but it does show how trains have become a fairly integral facet of the No Depression/alt.country mythology.

Swannanoa Tunnel

Completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad, which connected towns like Statesville and Charlotte at the center of the state to the mountains, and eventually the Tennessee border in the West, was a torturous process in more ways than one. The line was first chartered in 1855, but the outbreak of Civil War cut short early attempts to push the line to completion. North Carolina’s Reconstruction-Era government threw money at the project, only to have those in charge squander the money investing in dead-end railroad projects in Florida. A traveler through the region in 1875 rued how “the unfinished embankments, the half-built culverts and arches of the Western North Carolina railroad” were, “monuments to the rapacity and meanness of a few men in whom those counties placed confidence.”[1]

It was only after the heavy use of convict labor that the road was completed. Railroad building was invariably an expensive and labor intensive task, and in an effort to cut costs, companies short on capital turned to convict labor to construct the bulk of southern railroads after Reconstruction. Destitute southern state governments were more than happy to lease out convicts, who were mostly African-Americans imprisoned for petty crimes, to corporations. This alliance of state and business may have pushed roads like the Western North Carolina Railroad to completion, but it was brutal for workers.  Corporations had little incentive to keep workers healthy – in the cruel calculus of the system they could simply lease another for the same price if a convict died.
land of the sky
The high human cost of the convict labor system was exemplified by the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad. By 1878, over 500 convicts were working on the Western North Carolina line, sent there by Governor Zebulon Vance. The most formidable obstacle was Swannanoa Tunnel, which was the longest of seven tunnels along the route. Over 20 workers died in a series of cave-ins at the tunnel, and in all 125 workers died of various accidents, maladies or perhaps just outright violence, while building the road.
These anonymous deaths in isolated North Carolina mountains would have been largely forgotten, were it not for the fact that the tragedy at Swannanoa Tunnel survived in song, passed from worker to worker in railroad camps, and eventually collected and disseminated to the wider public. The version here comes from Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the “Minstrel of the Appalachians,” a collector of folk songs from Western NC.  The song references how the tunnel was ”all caved in,” names Asheville junction, the eventual destination of the line and relates the howling wind, deaths of other workers and constantly falling hammer of the workers. John Henry makes an appearance as well, as the narrator claims the work killed John Henry, but not him. The relatively simple banjo arrangement becomes much more haunting when the listener knows the tragic history of the site.

In a recent appearance of this region in song, North Carolina-based indie folk/country band Mount Moriah harkens back to Swannanoa on their excellent new album. To be honest, I am not sure if the song was inspired by the tunnel (it may just reference the town or the mansion that shares the name), but the mysterious nature of the song certainly brought the old folk song to my mind, and at any rate, the band deserves the plug.

Mount Moriah – Swannanoa

On a more self-promotional note, a piece I wrote about yet another deadly calamity on this line, an 1891 wreck outside Statesville, will be appearing soon in Southern Cultures. So stay tuned for another chapter of this railroad’s dark history…


[1] Quote from Edward King, The great South; a record of journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. (Hartford, 1875) , 506.

Bruce Springsteen (and Kurt Vile) – Downbound Train

Bruce Springsteen has always been a master at capturing working-class angst, whether in his harrowing descriptions of small-town, blue-collar life in the Reagan era, on classics like Nebraska, or his most recent album, which invokes one my personal favorite outbursts of labor strife – the great strike of 1877 – to provide pointed commentary about life in Great Recession America. Downbound Train, is nestled among some of Springsteen’s greatest, and most well-known hits, on Born in the USA, and though it is certainly not the most memorable track of this classic album, it is an excellent example of The Boss’s ability to speak to the ills of the downtrodden American working class.

On a most basic level, riding on a Downbound Train describes the way the narrator feels after suffering a series of romantic and economic setbacks, including the departure of his lover, and layoffs at the lumberyard that left him working a dead-end job at a car wash.  Train imagery runs throughout the song, as the man hears a whistle whining when he misses his wife at night and in the end, the troubled narrator’s downward spiral ends up with him actually working on the railroad, swinging a hammer on a railroad gang in an echo of John Henry’s demise. In contrast to train songs that use the railroad as a vehicle for salvation, or a means for escape to a better life, the train imagery in Downbound Train is almost exclusively negative in nature, perfectly capturing the downfall of a man constrained by larger economic forces, and tortured by the failure of a relationship.

In the hands of Kurt Vile, the Philadelphia-based indie/folk troubadour, the sad tale of Downbound Train is updated for our own troubled times.  Reverb-drenched guitars and Vile’s distinctively ennui-filled vocals portray the desperation of the narrator in an even darker tone. As with many of Kurt Vile’s songs, the twisting and turning guitar leads are a highlight here. The song ends with a lengthy guitar solo, opting to slowly drift away to an conclusion where Springsteen’s song simply turned down the volume.  In light of Vile’s discography full of slacker anthems (commentators have even gone so far as to label him the patron saint for the Great Recession’s legions of accidental bohemians) one can see why Vile chose to cover Downbound Train.  I would be remiss if I did not point out that Kurt Vile’s  new album also drops this week, and though it is sadly bereft of train songs, its a worthy addition to his discography.

Long Desert Trains: Jason Molina’s Train Songs

Coming from a songwriter whose work largely inspired this blog, and which even helped provide its namesake, Jason Molina’s  many train songs, were bound for an extensive treatment here. I got into his deep discography perhaps later than most, with Magnolia Electric Co., and later worked my way back through Songs: Ohia, but his albums have managed to linger in my listening rotation, an impressive feat given the amount of music I blow through on Spotify these days. In light of the recent tragic news, some sort of writeup, breaking my usual format here of one train song per post, felt right.

Magnolia Electric Co. – What Comes After The Blues
Magnolia Electric Co. – Don’t This Look Like The Dark
Magnolia Electric Co. – Trouble In Mind

The darkness haunts Molina’s music, whether it be through the recapitulation of lost loves, failed promises, or just through imagery, such as the ghosts, moons, owls, and lonely rail lines, that litter his lyrics.  From the lonesome rail line, where the narrator wants to lay his head down in Trouble in Mind, to the “whistle blow down the B&O, saying maybe someones time has come” in What Comes After the Blues, or the moon polishing the rails in Don’t this Look like the Dark, trains appear again and again in Molina’s songs.  In Hold on Magnolia, perhaps his most powerful song, the narrator, hears that lonesome whistle blow as he clings to life on his deathbed. And the tragic Long Desert Train paints an evocative picture of a train stretching through the desert, matched with Molinas typically sparse instrumentation and mournful vocals.

Jason Molina – Long Desert Train

The mythology of the railroad also permeates his work. John Henry Split my Heart uses the legendary John Henry, the convict laborer literally worked to death in the construction of a West Virginia rail tunnel, and the focus of countless folk songs (see this book for more on the many uses of John Henry in song) to describe a faltering relationship.

The many trains in his discography are fitting for a songwriter, who as an NPR piece so aptly put it, was a purveyor of the modern-day blues. Railroads form a major theme of early blues music, and blues singers used trains in both tragic ways – to describe the departure of lost loves, or a horrific wreck – and in a celebratory fashion –  to note the coming of godly salvation or escape to a better life. Molina’s trains, and his music as a whole, also captures this duality, as through the bleakness of his songs, hope always seemed to shine through.  His railroads convey loneliness, isolation, but also hope of redemption, just as rail lines symbolized escape, freedom and a better life, for singers of the original blues.

Molina seemed to be on the road to recovery, and fans were holding out hope for more music from his band, Magnolia Electric Co., a fact which makes his tragic death even more of a blow. This post is but a meager contribution to the outpouring of obituaries and tributes out there these last few weeks, but it felt right to offer up some sort of tribute to the man whose train songs, and indeed entire catalog, have had such a profound impact on my listening habits in the last few years. So, RIP Jason Molina, you will be missed.

Scott Joplin – Crush Collision March

In 1896, someone in Texas decided it would be a great idea to promote their small regional railroad by staging a collision between two trains. If there is one thing nineteenth-century Americans loved, it was looking at the wreckage of railroad disasters.  Crowds gathered after wrecks to view grisly remains, mourn as a community and offer amateur investigative work on the cause of the calamity. On paper, this event was a perfect plan – a controlled collision that promised to both enrich the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway and give the excursionists a exciting break from the mundanity of their lives.

An estimated 30 to 60 thousand people, descended on Crush, Texas, a small town created specifically for this event, to watch the crash. The organizers even decorated the trains with bright colors and gave each a giant face.  The engines collided as planned, and the frenzied crowd rushed forward to try to claim souvenirs from the wreckage.  As a newspaper account related “the excitement of the people became so intense that it was impossible to exercise any control of them whatever, and they almost rushed on the engines before they came together.” As the crowd picked through the twisted ruins, the boiler exploded, sending fragments of metal into the crowd.  Four were killed, included a young lady who was decapitated and a photographer killed by a flying bolt, and many others were injured. The twenty thousand dollars spent by the railroad to put on the wreck ended up paling in comparison to the $200,000 spent as indemnity for the injured and killed spectators. The company fired the man in charge of the mess, but quietly rehired him after the press attention died down.

This spectacle so inspired Scott Joplin that he wrote a song about it, a jaunty ragtime number. Nothing against jaunty ragtime numbers, but this is pretty much a prime example of how the story behind the train song can be a lot more compelling than the song itself.  The song does do a nice job of capturing the tension of the moment and what I am guessing is the crash itself, somewhere around the 3 minute mark.

I stumbled into this bizarre story when I happened upon this newspaper article about the Crush, in an Alabama paper, but if you would like to know more about the Crash at Crush, someone at the Baylor Library wrote up a nice history of the event. This didn’t quite make it into the dissertation, but it was certainly close…