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!

Magnetic Fields – Fear of Trains

A series of real-life developments have derailed (sorry) posting as of late, so apologies to those of you out there breathlessly awaiting new posts. To partially atone, I have one of my personal favorite train songs to share with you all today. The song is off the Charm of the Sunset Strip, a loosely organized concept album about the ambiguities of travel. Magnetic Fields have been around for a while, but I have been a little late in getting into them. To be honest, I find a lot of their stuff a little too twee and cutesy for my tastes, so a detailed rundown of their discography is beyond the scope of my interests, but I really dig Charm of the Sunset Strip, and not just because it contains two train songs. The album deals with one of the most quintessentially American of topics – travel – but it approaches it from the darker side of the experience, discussing subjects like crowds of drifters, lonely roads, doomed bandits, and of course, trains.

Fear of Trains is a bouncy pop song, but the song’s jovial tone belies the blear subject matter at hand.  The lyrics reference a whole series of historical disasters linked to the coming of the railroad in the West.  Focusing on a young Native American girl, they reference an army train that stole her father, bible train that stole her mother, government train that took her childhood, wagon train that took her country and oil train that took her land. As the narrator relates “everything she loved went down the dragon track.”

As a historian, I especially appreciate how the song is essentially a retelling of the history of the western railroads and the expansion of American capitalism from a perspective on the ground, a viewpoint that totally subverts the traditional narrative – that railroads were a triumph that civilized the West. Part of the project of doing history is recovering lost stories and narratives like this one, and the song even alludes to this process of historical erasure and recovery, discussing how the KKK took away the subject’s past. Though this is a fictional account, there were plenty of Indians who feared the Iron Horse and saw the arrival of the railroad not as a symbol of progress, but as a harbinger of their culture’s demise. So bravo to The Magnetic Fields for coming up with a unique example of a train song that deals with the broader historical consequences of railroad development.

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.

Swannanoa Tunnel

Completion of the Western North Carolina Railroad, which connected towns like Statesville and Charlotte at the center of the state to the mountains, and eventually the Tennessee border in the West, was a torturous process in more ways than one. The line was first chartered in 1855, but the outbreak of Civil War cut short early attempts to push the line to completion. North Carolina’s Reconstruction-Era government threw money at the project, only to have those in charge squander the money investing in dead-end railroad projects in Florida. A traveler through the region in 1875 rued how “the unfinished embankments, the half-built culverts and arches of the Western North Carolina railroad” were, “monuments to the rapacity and meanness of a few men in whom those counties placed confidence.”[1]

It was only after the heavy use of convict labor that the road was completed. Railroad building was invariably an expensive and labor intensive task, and in an effort to cut costs, companies short on capital turned to convict labor to construct the bulk of southern railroads after Reconstruction. Destitute southern state governments were more than happy to lease out convicts, who were mostly African-Americans imprisoned for petty crimes, to corporations. This alliance of state and business may have pushed roads like the Western North Carolina Railroad to completion, but it was brutal for workers.  Corporations had little incentive to keep workers healthy – in the cruel calculus of the system they could simply lease another for the same price if a convict died.
land of the sky
The high human cost of the convict labor system was exemplified by the construction of the Western North Carolina Railroad. By 1878, over 500 convicts were working on the Western North Carolina line, sent there by Governor Zebulon Vance. The most formidable obstacle was Swannanoa Tunnel, which was the longest of seven tunnels along the route. Over 20 workers died in a series of cave-ins at the tunnel, and in all 125 workers died of various accidents, maladies or perhaps just outright violence, while building the road.
These anonymous deaths in isolated North Carolina mountains would have been largely forgotten, were it not for the fact that the tragedy at Swannanoa Tunnel survived in song, passed from worker to worker in railroad camps, and eventually collected and disseminated to the wider public. The version here comes from Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the “Minstrel of the Appalachians,” a collector of folk songs from Western NC.  The song references how the tunnel was ”all caved in,” names Asheville junction, the eventual destination of the line and relates the howling wind, deaths of other workers and constantly falling hammer of the workers. John Henry makes an appearance as well, as the narrator claims the work killed John Henry, but not him. The relatively simple banjo arrangement becomes much more haunting when the listener knows the tragic history of the site.

In a recent appearance of this region in song, North Carolina-based indie folk/country band Mount Moriah harkens back to Swannanoa on their excellent new album. To be honest, I am not sure if the song was inspired by the tunnel (it may just reference the town or the mansion that shares the name), but the mysterious nature of the song certainly brought the old folk song to my mind, and at any rate, the band deserves the plug.

Mount Moriah – Swannanoa

On a more self-promotional note, a piece I wrote about yet another deadly calamity on this line, an 1891 wreck outside Statesville, will be appearing soon in Southern Cultures. So stay tuned for another chapter of this railroad’s dark history…


[1] Quote from Edward King, The great South; a record of journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. (Hartford, 1875) , 506.

Scott Joplin – Crush Collision March

In 1896, someone in Texas decided it would be a great idea to promote their small regional railroad by staging a collision between two trains. If there is one thing nineteenth-century Americans loved, it was looking at the wreckage of railroad disasters.  Crowds gathered after wrecks to view grisly remains, mourn as a community and offer amateur investigative work on the cause of the calamity. On paper, this event was a perfect plan – a controlled collision that promised to both enrich the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway and give the excursionists a exciting break from the mundanity of their lives.

An estimated 30 to 60 thousand people, descended on Crush, Texas, a small town created specifically for this event, to watch the crash. The organizers even decorated the trains with bright colors and gave each a giant face.  The engines collided as planned, and the frenzied crowd rushed forward to try to claim souvenirs from the wreckage.  As a newspaper account related “the excitement of the people became so intense that it was impossible to exercise any control of them whatever, and they almost rushed on the engines before they came together.” As the crowd picked through the twisted ruins, the boiler exploded, sending fragments of metal into the crowd.  Four were killed, included a young lady who was decapitated and a photographer killed by a flying bolt, and many others were injured. The twenty thousand dollars spent by the railroad to put on the wreck ended up paling in comparison to the $200,000 spent as indemnity for the injured and killed spectators. The company fired the man in charge of the mess, but quietly rehired him after the press attention died down.

This spectacle so inspired Scott Joplin that he wrote a song about it, a jaunty ragtime number. Nothing against jaunty ragtime numbers, but this is pretty much a prime example of how the story behind the train song can be a lot more compelling than the song itself.  The song does do a nice job of capturing the tension of the moment and what I am guessing is the crash itself, somewhere around the 3 minute mark.

I stumbled into this bizarre story when I happened upon this newspaper article about the Crush, in an Alabama paper, but if you would like to know more about the Crash at Crush, someone at the Baylor Library wrote up a nice history of the event. This didn’t quite make it into the dissertation, but it was certainly close…