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.

3 thoughts on “Long Desert Trains: Jason Molina’s Train Songs

  1. Pingback: A Map of the Falling Sky: On the Passing of Jason Molina | Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society

  2. Pingback: 2013 Albums of the Year (Part 3) | Lonesome Whistles

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