The Pine Hill Haints

Leaves are turning, a chill is in the air, and Halloween’s ghosts and ghouls are rapidly drawing near, giving us a perfect excuse to write about The Pine Hill Haints. Hailing from Auburn, Alabama, their music offers up a ramshackle blend of folk, country, bluegrass, honky-tonk and punk into a potent witches brew they dub “Alabama Ghost Music.” Behind the the howls and cackles of the energetic lead singer, their instrumentation features at various points a washboard, mandolin, washtub bass, and a slide whistle, along with more traditional implements of musical destruction.

pumpkin-bat

Their Alabama roots undergird the whiskey-soaked mythology of their music – actual historical figures like Joe Cain, a Confederate Civil War veteran credited with founding Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration, who paraded through the streets in Indian garb with his “Lost Cause Minstrels” in defiance of Reconstruction-era Yankee occupiers, co-exist alongside ghouls such as the Natchez Shakers, Jack-O-Fires, Bordello Blackwidows and traditional bluegrass heroes like Wild Bill Jones, Handsome Molly and the (ubiquitous) Wayfaring Stranger. Drawing on both actual history and a long tradition of Americana mythology, it is thus no surprise that train tracks and ghost trains criss-cross their violent, inebriated, and of-course, haunted retelling of southern history. Here are but a few of their train songs of note, which should help put you in a Halloween spirit:

“Screaming Jenny” relates the legend of a woman who, after being lit alight by a spark from a passing train on the B&O railroad, ran screaming onto the tracks, where she was subsequently mowed down by another train. Her fiery ghost still allegedly haunts the tracks near Harpers Ferry on the anniversary of her death. Not only is this a cool story, it also is a great idea for a Halloween costume for any fans of a ghost train-inspired holiday.

“Riding the Long Southern Train Blues”, references the history of the Southern Railway, once the largest corporation in the South, whose tracks traversed all corners of Alabama. The song retells a story of childhood train watching, and dire warnings about rail safety, and as the meandering 5 minute song draws to its conclusion, the band mimics the sound of a train gathering steam and then slowing to a halt as it approaches the station.

“Trains Have No Names” features an awesome piece of train-themed cover art, and again, the shuffling drums and backdrop of spectral whistling capture the sound of a passing train.

And finally, “Ghost Train,” is about a young boy warned by his mother to stay away from the window to avoid seeing the haunted train that comes “burning down” the rails at 11:59. The lead singer’s howling and ratcheting sounds like an actual train here – along with a backdrop of tortured screaming. These haunted trains join Justin Townes Earle’s Ghost of Virginia, in this great subgenre of the train song. If there’s one conclusion we can reach about ghost trains from this rudimentary investigation, they do always seem to appear at a scheduled time or anniversary.

The Haints have even more train songs than these four – making them one of the top purveyors of train songs out there today. For a history nerd like myself, its hard to resist the way they blend fact and the best strands of southern mythology and folklore in their records. And the music ain’t bad as well…

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Justin Townes Earle – Ghost of Virginia

Justin Townes Earle has garnered heaps of critical praise for the way in which he effortlessly blends Americana musical traditions, with a contemporary sensibility and a flair for showmanship. Covers of obscure old country and folk songs are a standard in his set lists, so it should thus be no surprise that trains, a favorite topic of the original generation of country music singers, show up all throughout his discography. Ghost of Virginia is perhaps my favorite train song of his, both lyrically and musically, but it will certainly not be the last one featured here. The live video above comes from an excellent playlist of youtube videos, which all record an energetic live performance by Earle.

Though the song is an original, the subject matter and Earle’s arrangement mean its not much of a stretch to imagine a song like this on the tongues of the Appalachian balladeers of old.  The imagery of the lyrics is great – from the cold, black steel of the train and the smoke billowing out of the wheels, to the screaming sound, and the surrounding pine trees along the route. Not only is it a train song, its also a Civil War song, as the train travels the route between Raleigh and Richmond, a route that was so vital to the war effort, that the Confederate government had to forcibly shift the gauge of the North Carolina Railroad to match the gauge of capital’s Richmond & Danville line. The air of mystery about the ghost train – the second-hand rumors of its appearance, suggestions that it either is atoning for a wreck, or gathering up lost souls on its way South – only adds to the mythology of the song.

Ghost trains are a fascinating topic that probably deserve a post here in their own right, but for now its worth at least mentioning a interesting example from North Carolina that shares some characteristics with the Ghost of Virginia.  Every year on the anniversary of a train wreck in 1891 a ghost train allegedly appears on Bostian’s Bridge, just outside of Statesville. Like Earle’s Ghost of Virginia, this ghost train is linked with an awful wreck.  Witnesses claim to see and hear the train passing over the bridge, and some have also claimed to see spectral baggage men or other crew members.  The ghost train made the news after ghost hunters on the track tragically encountered an actual train on the still-active line in 2010.

And I have at least some evidence that ghost trains were a 19th century phenomena as well. This 1881 article in the Railway Gazette noted the appearance of one in Georgia. A man claimed to see an approaching engine along the path of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, but he heard no sound. The man also described a “pale, wide-eyed engineer,” and the “ghostly, phantom-like” machinery.  So while there is certainly much more to be written about ghost trains, for now its safe to say that Ghost of Virginia is a great encapsulation of strands of both folklore and actual history – another reason why Justin Townes Earle is one of my favorite songwriters.