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.
Yesterday’s post on Doc Watson and The Train That Carried My Girl From Town overlooked one crucial fact about the song – that it continues to be covered today. So as a bonus post on this song, which has been in my head all day, here are two great covers by excellent artists. The first comes from the inimitable Justin Townes Earle. Earle is an expert at making old country relevant to new audiences so this cover is certainly in his wheelhouse.
The second is a rousing and hard-driving rendition from William Elliot Whitmore, and serves as a reminder that I really need to listen to more of his stuff.
Enjoy these modern day covers of a classic train song!
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.