Drive-By Truckers – The Day John Henry Died

I have been on a major Jason Isbell kick lately, mostly because I’m gearing up for his new solo record Southeastern, which comes out next month.  If the advance singles for this are any indicator (here is a particularly poignant new track streaming at Garden & Gun), its going to be one hell of an album.  So in honor of this recent Isbell binge, today we have one of my all-time favorite train songs. Before his illustrious and productive career as a solo artist with his backing band the 400 Unit, Isbell was an integral piece of the Drive-By Truckers line-up that cranked out classic after classic in the early 2000s.  Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South, stand as a three-album run unmatched in quality by hardly any other band. Part of the strength of these albums comes from the triple-threat songwriting prowess of Isbell, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.  The three frontmen traded off songs on Truckers albums, though the Isbell ones always were my favorites.

As someone obsessed with trains, it should thus come as no surprise that The Day John Henry Died is my all-time favorite Drive-By Truckers song.  Written by Isbell, its off of The Dirty South and like much of the Truckers repertoire, it deals with the dark underbelly of the South. The legend of John Henry, the convict laborer literally worked to death while digging a railroad tunnel in West Virginia, fits right in with the bootleggers, crooked lawmen, feuding families, deadbeat fathers, and down-on-their luck working-class men and women that populate the Truckers’ world. The song is mostly a basic retelling of the John Henry legend, but there are so many great lyrical turns of phase in here I don’t know where to start. Isbell describes, “that big machine that ran on human hope and steam,” and he contrasts the plight of John Henry with the men who ran the railroad – “he knew the perfect way to hold a hammer, was the way the railroad baron held the deed.” In my day job, I study industrialization and the spread of capitalism in the 19th century south, and its hard to find a more poignant encapsulation of this sweeping historical transformation than the line “an engine never thinks about his daddy and an engine never needs to write his name.”

John Henry remains such a powerful figure in American culture for the way he speaks to these universal struggles of the industrial age. His story resonates for any worker displaced by mechanization, this century or the last, and for anyone who feels crushed by the weight of larger forces outside their control or beaten down by large corporations. Indeed, the last stanza of the song speaks to the modern day relevance of the John Henry story, as Isbell compares Henry’s saga to the plight of the modern-day musician, shipping across the country with no sleep to play a show in LA, and ground up by the gears of the music industry machine. Its also a story that speaks to the plight of the modern-day southern working class (“they changed the way his job was done, labor costs were high”) – a common topic of the Drive-By Truckers discography.

Despite the tragic subject matter, I have always found the song to be uplifting. Perhaps this is due to the universality of the John Henry story – we have all at one time felt crushed by the machine of modern life. The fact that the song also rocks really hard, with a driving drumbeat, and the always-excellent guitar heroics of the Truckers, also helps lend an element of hope to this sad tale.

This live acoustic version is also pretty good. Without the backing band takes on a more mournful tone, which changes the tone of the song, but I think it fits well. Sadly, the song never made it into the setlist in the two times I have seen Isbell live in Gainesville. Incidentally, in this version Isbell says the song was written after the death of his grandfather, which lends another layer of meaning to this excellent song.

Tim Barry – Church of Level Track

Living in Gainesville, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone in a punk band, a fact that has certainly helped me broaden my musical horizons and discover artists like Tim Barry. Tim Barry was the front man for Avail, a DC-area punk band big in the 90s, before switching focus to solo records in the 00s. It would be easy to dismiss his as just another aging-punk-goes-country cliche, but the earnestness of his music helps him stand out from the pack. Lyrically, his stuff is brutally honest, dealing with topics like busted relationships, what it means to be punk/authentic, and critiques of modern capitalism and the rat race it creates. His live shows almost take on the feel of a self-help session, with Barry preaching his back-to-basics ethos and the virtues of independent living.

An integral part of this worldview involves trains, as he is an avid fan of hopping trains out of his home in Richmond. For Barry, and indeed for any of the many modern-day tramps out there, riding the rails is both a way to see and experience the underbelly of America, the backs of towns, and forgotten countrysides traversed by rail lines, and its the ultimate way to get off the grid and drop out of modern life for a while. For more on train hopping, check out this documentary, Cure for the Crash, a film I randomly discovered in the course of a night out on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. It should thus come as no surprise that Barry is one of the more prolific modern producers of train songs.

Church of Level Track is off Rivanna Junction, his first full solo album which also happens to boast a railroad-inspired name. The song tells the tale of using a journey around the southeast to figure things out with a buddy. The narrator smokes, drinks and contemplates life on a freight train heading south from Rocky Mount (in NC) to Florida, but when the train breaks up in Jacksonville, his friend heads west towards Pensacola. Riding the rails is living life to the fullest, as Barry sings in the chorus, “if I die thinking here I wont die wondering how life could’ve turned out.” Barry also warns “sometimes its best to slow your pace when you cant control it.” While I probably lack the fortitude and sense of adventure to ride the rails like Barry, this is certainly worthwhile advice in these times of fast-living and constant connectedness.

Chatham County Line – The Carolinian

In honor of my impending move (later this summer) to the North Carolina mountains, today we have a bluegrass song about the Tarheel state. As far as genres are concerned, bluegrass may be one of the most train-friendly. Listening to a Doc Watson greatest hits album is almost like listening to my train songs playlist, so this will certainly not be the last time some bluegrass shows up here. Along with Trampled by Turtles, The Fox Hunt, and Old Crow Medicine Show, Chatham County Line are one my favorite new bluegrass groups out there. Their Carolina roots run deep, both in the band name, and the subject matter of their songs.

Just as Chatham County Line offers up a modernized take on bluegrass, The Carolinian is twist on one of the oldest train song tropes – the lover leaving on a train.  In this case, the romance starts on the train itself, when the singer falls for a woman on the southbound Carolinian train, heading from DC to NC.  But she is bound for Richmond and the narrator is on the way to Raleigh, where he already has a woman about to bear him a son.  Before she leaves she asks him to come to Richmond and start a new life.He declines, but the decision always lingers in his mind, and every time he sees the north bound Carolinian, his heart stops. He even brings his son (now grown up) to the tracks to watch trains roll by.  The Carolinian is a still-active Amtrak route, though I must say, my experience riding Amtrak, while pleasant enough, had none of the glamor of the song.  My seat partner was a dude bound for a bachelor party in Miami, who woke up hungover after drinking too much in the snack car, and the only hints of a rail-bound romance was when an older man aggressively (and unsuccessfully) hit on a younger woman a few seats behind me. But the song tells a great story, and it presents an entirely new way in which trains can inflict emotional carnage.

Water Liars – On the Day

Almost all the train songs featured here are train songs because of their lyrical content, but we have a different brand of train song today, one that uses the sound of an actual train. Water Liars are a two-piece group from Mississippi, with just drum and guitar instrumentation, who specialize in bleak, mostly acoustic folk songs that occasionally rock a little harder and burst open with waves of distortion. Their new album, Wyoming just came out a month or two ago, and its a moving collection of sad tales of failing relationships. Definitely worth checking out if you’re into the darker side of folk music.

“On the Day” is off their first record, Phantom Limb, and its a dirge-like song about death and what will happen on the day the singer dies.  He is tortured by the lies he told over the course of his life and has “no more excuses” for the way he treated people close to him. This extraordinarily break deathbed confession and sparse acoustic arrangement is made more haunting by the squeals, creaks, rattling, and rustling winds of a passing train in the background. The song, and the entire album, ends with two minutes of train sounds, fading out slowly as the train passes by. Its a stunning way to not only end a song about death, but to close out a record as well.  Its the type of ending that demands that the listener start the whole album over again, and considering the amount of play I have given Phantom Limb, its quite effective.

For a bonus, train-related video from the group. Here is the singer performing Dog Eaten, one the standout tracks from Phantom Limb, by one of his favorite spots, a highway overpass next to some train tracks. The train sounds from “On the Day” could very well have come from this spot.

Incidentally, the area the band is from also has some storied railroad history. Until the Illinois Central railroad shifted its main track west through the Delta, north Mississippi towns like Oxford, Holly Springs and Water Valley were major stopping points on this vital corridor linking Chicago and New Orleans. The band’s hometown, Water Valley housed repair shops for the company and was the site of labor strife in the 1870s.  All that’s left in many of these towns now is a decrepit depot, or faded train tracks. I am a total sucker for decaying remnants of rail history, so one of these days I am going to have to visit the area to search out spots like the one in this video.

Magnetic Fields – Fear of Trains

A series of real-life developments have derailed (sorry) posting as of late, so apologies to those of you out there breathlessly awaiting new posts. To partially atone, I have one of my personal favorite train songs to share with you all today. The song is off the Charm of the Sunset Strip, a loosely organized concept album about the ambiguities of travel. Magnetic Fields have been around for a while, but I have been a little late in getting into them. To be honest, I find a lot of their stuff a little too twee and cutesy for my tastes, so a detailed rundown of their discography is beyond the scope of my interests, but I really dig Charm of the Sunset Strip, and not just because it contains two train songs. The album deals with one of the most quintessentially American of topics – travel – but it approaches it from the darker side of the experience, discussing subjects like crowds of drifters, lonely roads, doomed bandits, and of course, trains.

Fear of Trains is a bouncy pop song, but the song’s jovial tone belies the blear subject matter at hand.  The lyrics reference a whole series of historical disasters linked to the coming of the railroad in the West.  Focusing on a young Native American girl, they reference an army train that stole her father, bible train that stole her mother, government train that took her childhood, wagon train that took her country and oil train that took her land. As the narrator relates “everything she loved went down the dragon track.”

As a historian, I especially appreciate how the song is essentially a retelling of the history of the western railroads and the expansion of American capitalism from a perspective on the ground, a viewpoint that totally subverts the traditional narrative – that railroads were a triumph that civilized the West. Part of the project of doing history is recovering lost stories and narratives like this one, and the song even alludes to this process of historical erasure and recovery, discussing how the KKK took away the subject’s past. Though this is a fictional account, there were plenty of Indians who feared the Iron Horse and saw the arrival of the railroad not as a symbol of progress, but as a harbinger of their culture’s demise. So bravo to The Magnetic Fields for coming up with a unique example of a train song that deals with the broader historical consequences of railroad development.