Elizabeth Cotten – Freight Train

In a rare departure, we are pleased to feature breaking news in the world of train songs today. In Carrboro, the state of North Carolina is unveiling a marker to honor Elizabeth Cotten, a resident famous for her song “Freight Train.” The linked article from the Raleigh News-Observer relates the whole tale, but as the story goes, as a teenager Cotton would sit outside her house and watch trains fly by on the Norfolk Southern Line. Inspired by this sight, she penned Freight Train, a simple ode to the Iron Horse. A bit of a morbid song coming from a teenager, “Freight Train” marvels at the speed of the train, and Cotten asks to be buried near the tracks when she dies so she “can hear old number 9 as she comes rolling by.” After marrying and moving out of the area, she mostly gave up guitar for decades, before she was discovered by the Seeger family in the 60s.

This is our first entry in the category of train songs and historical markers, but its an interesting question to consider which train songs are linked to a physical site like this. This is not the first historical marker linked to a train song – the wreck of the Old 97 in Danville, VA has a marker as well. Beyond this wreck, all train wreck ballads are associated with some particular location, though many of these are not well preserved. For understandable reasons, railroad corporations are not particularly eager to mark out tragedies like these, and many of the sites of these wrecks occurred remain active rail lines, out of the reach of tourists’ prying eyes.

old 97 marker

Swannanoa Tunnel in North Carolina, immortalized in song by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, among others, and site of a tragic cave-in, has a marker as well.

swannanoa tunnel

There are surely more of these out there, and this is a topic we will have to return to, but for now its nice to have a train-song related historical marker for something positive. The landscape of Carrboro, like many old railroad towns, remains dominated by the railroad, so the marker surely will integrate well into the area. Tracks run directly through the town, and one can grab dinner at the Southern Rail restaurant, or down a stiff drink at the Station, an old depot renovated and turned into a bar. If nothing else, this story gives us an excuse to head back to Carrboro sometime to check out the marker and the area’s great string of watering holes. Kudos to my new state of North Carolina for putting up the sign!

Gillian Welch – Down Along the Dixie Line

As summer turns to fall and leaves slowly begin to turn up here in the mountains, our music tastes have been taking a turn to a darker direction and the Gillian Welch’s catalog has been slipping more and more into our listening rotation. Besides being a phenomenal songwriter and singer, Welch is a master of imagery, and her music strikes a perfect balance between the whiskey-soaked misery of her lyrics and stunning beauty of her voice and meandering guitar work. Her newest (2011) record Harrow and the Harvest always reminds us of lonely research trips driving through gorgeous southern backroads on the way to archives. As an added bonus, the album artwork was done by John Baizley, headman of another of our musical heroes, the Savannah-based metal band Baroness.

Like the rest of this phenomenal record, Down Along the Dixie Line is a southern gothic masterpiece, and on a most literal level its about missing the South and hoping to catch a train down the dixie line. The song includes some standard sepia-toned Welch tropes, including, whiskey (of course), nostalgia for a lost past, grey weeds, and strumming banjos, along with all kinds of trains, such as squalling freight trains and shining bright rails. The narrator wants to “catch that fireball” a reference to either a colloquial label for a train, or the glamorous fast express or cannonball trains that once flew along the nation’s rail lines in the golden age of rail travel. In an apparent nod to this lost bit of railroad history, “they pulled up the tracks” and the narrator can’t go back. Maybe one of these days, we will post a northbound train song, but as in so many other train songs, the ultimate goal in this one is to head South and leave the “northland far behind.”

Bluegrass maestro Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers covered the song as well, and while it certainly translates well to a catchy bluegrass jam, I think the song loses a bit of its mystique with the increased speed.

Southeast Engine – C&O Railway

If there is one thing that excites us as music fans, its thoughtful, well-researched historical concept albums. Southeast Engine, the Athens, Ohio, based band behind today’s train song, burst onto our radar with just such a record, 2011’s Canary. The album eloquently relates the plight of a family suffering through the Great Depression in the Appalachian mountains of SW Ohio. The band veers between rollicking up-tempo folk rockers and acoustic laments, and thanks to some skillful recycling of old musical traditions, an album that could quickly gotten either tedious or overly contrived, retains a sense of authenticity. Our new Appalachian locale has gotten us listening to Canary again, and further investigation turned up the band’s recently released 4-song EP, Canaanville, which continues the same theme as the album, and which contains C&O Railway.

C&O Railway relates the reminiscences of an old railroad worker standing on the tracks that he helped build. The C&O is the old Chesapeake and Ohio rail line, which pierced the Appalachian mountains, connecting its namesake regions in the decade after the Civil War. The song’s protagonist had helped “hammer down the mountains” to build the line, but from his current vantage point, the glories brought by the railroad had long passed his town by. The trains came for the region’s coal and timber, carrying away wealth and “fruits of our labor” before abandoning the town. The train haunts the narrator like a ghost and the old man stares at the old tracks feeling much like a ghost himself.

The song is so effective because it echoes a long and often-tortuous history of railroads (and economic development more broadly) in Appalachia. Throughout the region’s past, there has been a constant tension between the need to attract outside capital and investment to the impoverished region, and the desire that this development avoid exploitation, and that the wealth and bounties of Appalachia stay at home. Sadly, it was typically outside elites and foreign corporations that did the best in Appalachian economic “progress,” whether that meant coal mining, timber, or now, natural gas development. As the leading edge of outside investment, and the vehicle that carried off the region’s commodities, railroads perfectly symbolize this dilemma, so it is no surprise that railroads are often associated with darker imagery and the more tragic side of history, as they are in this song.