Josh Ritter – Harrisburg

Like the best of the modern train song troubadours updating this old cliche for the 21st century, Josh Ritter approaches the business of train songs with a wink and a nod. As he sings on “Me & Jiggs” an early cut of his, “on a Saturday night in a town like tonight I forget all my songs about trains.” Because of course, any folk singer worth their salt has a veritable freight car’s worth of train songs in their repertoire. And he is probably right to poke fun at himself, for Ritter does not disappoint in this department.

Harrisburg is a dark, acoustic guitar-driven story-telling ballad. Played live the song takes on a more jaunty tone, and Ritter always stretches out the middle to include some sort of cover. While I prefer the simple, and somber, original version, its an interesting twist, and an example of Ritter’s impeccable showmanship. The song relates the saga of Romero, a devoutly religious immigrant who “slips like a shadow, from the family he made” and heads where the train tracks take him, on the way to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The choice of Harrisburg as a setting for a train song, may seem slightly unconventional, but its not entirely out of left field. Harrisburg was a critical railroad junction in the 19th century, as evidenced by the fact that the Confederate army’s fateful thrust North in 1863, halted at Gettysburg, had the capture of this point as its ultimate goal. Severing the tracks at Harrisburg would split the Pennsylvania Railroad, a crucial East-West route in the northern railroad system.

But sadly Romero never makes it to Harrisburg, or Heaven for that matter, dying in a hole somewhere in between. The nature of his demise is not named, but its clear the train – either by conveying him away, or perhaps more directly causing harm – is the culprit. Or the train may simply be a stand-in for the system of industrial capitalism that did Romero in. Religious imagery runs throughout the song as well, creating a powerful juxtaposition between the godly Romero and his demise at the hands of a heartless industrial system.

LackaVall

The song has perhaps one the better ending lines for a train song, with Ritter snarling, “me I believe that the Garden of Eden was burned to make way for a train.” Its a line that not only fits the story of Romero, but that also harkens back to 19th century representations of railroads in art and literature. As Leo Marx argues in the classic work The Machine in the Garden the shriek of a locomotive rushing through wilderness became a common literary device to convey the jarring impact of rapid on industrialization on the pastoral ideal of early America. Time and time again, the image of the machine in the garden appeared in literature and artwork (as seen above in “The Lackawanna Valley” from 1855) to speak to the anxieties of industrial development. Railroads were the quintessential symbol of 19th century modernity, so part of the genius of the song is that it speaks to more than just Romero’s sad fate, but to the nation’s as well.

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Justin Townes Earle – Workin’ for the MTA

As I write this, temperatures have plunged dramatically, which is giving me an excuse to give Justin Townes Earle a well-deserved repeat run here on the blog, with Workin’ for the MTA, a song that at its most basic level, is about being cold. Specifically its about being cold while working for the MTA, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is in charge of operating the city’s massive subway system. Its a simple blues song told from the point of view of a subway operator who’s moved to NYC from the South.

“This ain’t my daddy’s train” sings the narrator, as he relates how he is the son of a railroad man from south Louisiana. Lot’s of great historical touchstones here – the Great Migration, carried out on rail lines stretching from states like Louisiana to the North is perhaps the obvious reference point. Thousands of African-Americans surged northwards in the 1910s and 20s seeking industrial jobs not unlike that of the humble subway operator. And of course, the Great Migration echoed in song, many of which were centered on the image of the departing train carrying hope but severing previous relationships.

(This video is not an official one, but its a great compilation of old archival train footage. Tip of the hat to the amateur youtube video community for this one)

But more immediately, the song shadows a personal migration for Earle, who moved to the NYC area from Tennessee before recording the album. Its off a record (Harlem River Blues) detailing Earle’s exploits in the Big Apple, many of which deal with the jarring transition from sunny South to urban jungle. So its only appropriate for Earle to shift the setting of the traditional train song to his new environment. And like many of the best modern-day train songs, the song winks at the cliched nature of the genre. Finally, the references to the narrator’s father’s profession also may carry some extra resonance for Earle, who’s career has emerged from the considerable shadow cast by his legendary father Steve Earle.

From personal experience, the MTA can be a tough beast to master, as I found out trying to find my way across Brooklyn one early (and slightly hungover) morning, only to find out half the usual stops were closed due to heavy rain. Or maybe this episode just exposed what a country rube I am. But any rate, Workin’ For the MTA is a song of comfort to southerners, or at least those accustomed to sunny climes, who end up freezing in the frigid North.