For stereotype-minded Americans like myself, Sweden typically brings to mind either bloodthirsty Vikings or tastefully designed build-it-yourself furniture. As a former metalhead obsessed with the Gothenburg melodic death scene, roughly half the bands in my iTunes library (circa 2002 or so) hailed from Sweden or Scandinavia. I am no expert, and I am sure Sweden boasts a rich railroading heritage, but train songs have always seemed a little outside the typical Swedish milieu. In First Aid Kit, we have a duo of young angelic folksingers with one of the few Swedish train songs that I know of. Surely there are more, but I am admittedly a little rusty on my Swedish folk music knowledge. These two girls’ pretty harmonies, eloquent songwriting, and a well-timed youtube cover of a Fleet Foxes song, have earned them a sizable audience, and even a tour slot alongside Bright Eyes.
The song itself conjures up images of travel and life on the road, but returns to trains in every chorus, where the narrator “finds themselves attached to this railroad track.” The railroad track could mean a couple of things in this one. The most direct interpretation is that the song is just a road song, with the narrator traveling through ghost towns, attached to the railroad track, and lamenting the lover left behind. Or if one reads a little more into it, the song could be a ghost song, about a woman killed along a railroad track who mourns her lover, who has since moved on with a new family. But the ghost woman promises she will return one day, presumably to do the haunting that ghosts are wont to do. Either interpretation puts the song in a long tradition of songs linking trains with lost loves (see half the other posts on this blog for examples). Personally, I have been attached to railroad tracks in an entirely different matter over the long march to finish my dissertation, but I doubt this type of railroad obsession is what the songwriters had in mind…
We have been in a bit of a Civil War kind of mindset these days with all the 150th anniversary events going on up at Gettysburg earlier this month, so today we have a Civil War train song. The authenticity police out there may point out that the man who wrote this song, Robbie Robertson, is not a died-in-the-wool Confederate, but a Canadian. However, the song does accurately capture the plight of Confederate soldiers in the early days after Lee’s surrender. The video posted here is from The Last Waltz, a recording of the legendary last performance of The Band.
The song tells the story of Virgil Caine, who served “on the Danville train,” which undoubtedly refers to the Richmond & Danville line, a crucial rail corridor linked the capital of the Confederacy with North Carolina, and the rest of the rebellious nation. The last Union attacks on Petersburg were designed to sever this line and isolate the capital Richmond. Attacks on railroads were common during the war – Sherman’s men left a trail of “Sherman’s Neckties,” twisted and mangled pieces of track, all through their march through the South.
The rest of the song is a powerful portrait of the man’s struggles, describing his wife back in Tennessee, and brother felled by Union bullets. Indeed, its a testament to the power of the song, that it sounds like it could have been written in 1865 by some forlorn Johnny Reb. Even an unabashed Yankee like myself can appreciate the plight of the common Confederate soldier after the war, though if the youtube videos and comments on this are to be believed, the song is a bit of a magnet for the neo-Confederate types looking to tell their version of the war.
As a bonus version, here is bizarre cover of the song featuring Joan Baez and some muppets. She flubs the Stoneman’s cavalry line as well, substituting Stonewall Jackson, who fought for the South and who was dead for 2 years before the events of the song. I honestly don’t think I am old enough to understand why this exists, but its certainly an interesting rendition.
We are drawing today’s train song from alt.country’s ever-productive well of railroad-related imagery. Son Volt, of course, are half of the genre pioneers Uncle Tupelo, and fronted by Jay Farrar. While the other half Wilco went on to indie stardom, Son Volt has largely kept rolling along with the same sound – a winning and safe formula of slide guitars, slow tempos, and Jay Farrar’s slightly disaffected drawl. Critics of Son Volt lament how the band fell into a bit of a creative rut after about an album or two, and its true band certainly does not rock like Uncle Tupelo used to. You definitely have to be in the right kind of lackadaisical mood for Son Volt, but for a lazy summer afternoon, or a meandering drive out in the countryside one would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate soundtrack.
The song is not immediately recognizable as a train song, as lyrically it mostly focuses on general themes of movement and separation from a partner, and on trying to survive “like creosote.” Creosote is a product that certainly would help something survive. Produced from the distillation of tar, it has a myriad of other uses, but in the context of railroading, it was applied to wooden railroad ties as a preservative. Any railroad builder worth their salt would naturally want the track to last, so production of creosote took off with the rapid spread of the railroad network in the latter half of the nineteenth century, unfortunately it is quite a hazardous chemical. A old creosoting plant in Gainesville is now a contaminated Superfund cleanup site and surely its not the only one out there.
Besides the creosote reference, the song also contains one of my favorite train song lines – “From Memphis to New Orleans, in and out of railroad dreams / youre out there in scenes, passing by.” In additon to being a nice rhyme, being “in and out of railroad dreams,” pretty accurately describes my life over the past few years. Its undoubtedly referring to the Illinois Central railroad line between these two cities, which shows up again and again in train song lore (Casey Jones, City of New Orleans, etc…) So this line, and the connection between creosote and railroading is enough, in my book at least, to plant this song firmly in the train song category.