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.
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.