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.