Lonesome Whistles is now coming at you from a brand new location up in the North Carolina mountains, so in honor of this change in scenery, today’s song comes from local bluegrass legend the late Doc Watson. Enshrined in a statue in downtown Boone (right up the road from me now), Watson has a lengthy discography chock full of train songs. Continuing in the common theme of trains-as-relationship-destroyers, “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town” has a plot about as complex as the title – a train is carrying away the narrator’s girl, and he is upset about it. From the lyrics its a little unclear if the woman left on her own or if some rounder stole her off, but whatever the cause of the singer’s plight, the song features a threat to shoot the rounder, and a grim and rather explicit wish that the train would wreck and break the engineer’s neck. The poor engineers never seem to do well in these old train songs, but at least this song only wishes for a wreck, instead of reporting the tragic results of one.
The song was originally made famous by Frank Hutchinson, a West Virginia born musician who owes his musical origins partly to listening to a blues playing black railroad worker while growing up. He also was part of the earliest 1920s generation of country singers that burst into the national consciousness with the 1927 Bristol recording sessions. Of course, Hutchinson, and many of the other musicians involved in these session were often not the sole authors of these songs. According to Norm Cohen’s Long Steel Rail, the go-to source on old train songs, Hutchinson learned the song from a black musician named Bill Hunt, who sang to entertain miners in West Virginia’s coal mines. Hutchinson recorded the song in 1926 in New York City, along with a few other train songs, and the song was later adopted by Doc Watson, who made a career out of bringing old folk songs like this to life for new audiences. The original version is below, though I personally prefer the speedy picking and the more upbeat feel of Doc Watson’s rendition.