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!

Amanda Shires – When You Need a Train it Never Comes

Amanda Shires and her husband Jason Isbell have certainly been on a tear as of late, both releasing critically acclaimed albums that are deservedly bringing their talents to a wider audience. Isbell has already been featured here for “The Day John Henry Died,” one of my all-time favorites, and months after its release, I still cannot stop listening to his new album Southeastern. In light of the release of her excellent new album last week, it seemed worthwhile to revisit a great train song from Shires’s last LP, Carrying Lightning.

For Mississippi blues artists, departing trains formed the conduit of the Great Migration, and the trains that appeared in blues songs often symbolized escape from the repression of the Jim Crow South and the hope of a better life up north. Of course, there is a darker side to a leaving train, as this blog has featured a whole host of southbound trains carrying away lovers and causing romantic destruction. “When You Need a Train it Never Comes,” is a sly inversion of this usual train song trope. In this case the narrator waits desperately for a train that never comes, and the absence of a train speaks to the trapped situation the narrator has found herself in. Beyond playing with this classic theme, the song is a veritable railyard full of train imagery – from Shires dreaming she “was tied to a train track, twisting in the sun” to the noise of the train itself, which distracts from the screaming thoughts and haunting voices of a relationship gone south, and to the reference of the historic transcontinental Union Pacific.

Every Americana artist worth their salt needs a good train song, and its safe to say Shires nails her rendition of the genre. Cleverly written songs like this, which invokes a long lineage of train songs and railroad imagery, are why Shires has been rising to the top of the Americana heap. Though her new record Down Came the Doves is sadly bereft of train songs, it continues in this tradition of smart and powerful songwriting so check it out if you’re into this kind of stuff.

The Band – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

We have been in a bit of a Civil War kind of mindset these days with all the 150th anniversary events going on up at Gettysburg earlier this month, so today we have a Civil War train song. The authenticity police out there may point out that the man who wrote this song, Robbie Robertson, is not a died-in-the-wool Confederate, but a Canadian. However, the song does accurately capture the plight of Confederate soldiers in the early days after Lee’s surrender. The video posted here is from The Last Waltz, a recording of the legendary last performance of The Band.

The song tells the story of Virgil Caine, who served “on the Danville train,” which undoubtedly refers to the Richmond & Danville line, a crucial rail corridor linked the capital of the Confederacy with North Carolina, and the rest of the rebellious nation. The last Union attacks on Petersburg were designed to sever this line and isolate the capital Richmond. Attacks on railroads were common during the war – Sherman’s men left a trail of “Sherman’s Neckties,” twisted and mangled pieces of track, all through their march through the South.

The rest of the song is a powerful portrait of the man’s struggles, describing his wife back in Tennessee, and brother felled by Union bullets. Indeed, its a testament to the power of the song, that it sounds like it could have been written in 1865 by some forlorn Johnny Reb. Even an unabashed Yankee like myself can appreciate the plight of the common Confederate soldier after the war, though if the youtube videos and comments on this are to be believed, the song is a bit of a magnet for the neo-Confederate types looking to tell their version of the war.

As a bonus version, here is bizarre cover of the song featuring Joan Baez and some muppets. She flubs the Stoneman’s cavalry line as well, substituting Stonewall Jackson, who fought for the South and who was dead for 2 years before the events of the song. I honestly don’t think I am old enough to understand why this exists, but its certainly an interesting rendition.

Water Liars – On the Day

Almost all the train songs featured here are train songs because of their lyrical content, but we have a different brand of train song today, one that uses the sound of an actual train. Water Liars are a two-piece group from Mississippi, with just drum and guitar instrumentation, who specialize in bleak, mostly acoustic folk songs that occasionally rock a little harder and burst open with waves of distortion. Their new album, Wyoming just came out a month or two ago, and its a moving collection of sad tales of failing relationships. Definitely worth checking out if you’re into the darker side of folk music.

“On the Day” is off their first record, Phantom Limb, and its a dirge-like song about death and what will happen on the day the singer dies.  He is tortured by the lies he told over the course of his life and has “no more excuses” for the way he treated people close to him. This extraordinarily break deathbed confession and sparse acoustic arrangement is made more haunting by the squeals, creaks, rattling, and rustling winds of a passing train in the background. The song, and the entire album, ends with two minutes of train sounds, fading out slowly as the train passes by. Its a stunning way to not only end a song about death, but to close out a record as well.  Its the type of ending that demands that the listener start the whole album over again, and considering the amount of play I have given Phantom Limb, its quite effective.

For a bonus, train-related video from the group. Here is the singer performing Dog Eaten, one the standout tracks from Phantom Limb, by one of his favorite spots, a highway overpass next to some train tracks. The train sounds from “On the Day” could very well have come from this spot.

Incidentally, the area the band is from also has some storied railroad history. Until the Illinois Central railroad shifted its main track west through the Delta, north Mississippi towns like Oxford, Holly Springs and Water Valley were major stopping points on this vital corridor linking Chicago and New Orleans. The band’s hometown, Water Valley housed repair shops for the company and was the site of labor strife in the 1870s.  All that’s left in many of these towns now is a decrepit depot, or faded train tracks. I am a total sucker for decaying remnants of rail history, so one of these days I am going to have to visit the area to search out spots like the one in this video.

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.

Lucero – Union Pacific Line

So I realize that despite the diversity of genres in which trains appear, this blog has been in a bit of an alt.country/no depression/americana rut lately, and this post will keep up this trend, but I can’t resist writing about a brand spanking new train song from one of my all-time favorite bands.  Lucero are based in Memphis, and though they have roots in the punk scene, they have become masters of tear-in-your-beer alt.country that retains a bit of punk spirit. Ben Nichols’s world weary, raspy vocals are always a highlight, but the twisting and turning guitar work should also not be overlooked. My personal favorite of theirs, 2003’s That Much Further West, ebbs and flows, from slow meandering tales of lost love to rousing affirmations and declarations – a rare record that can fit both a night of quiet contemplation and a destructive night out on the town.

The new EP, Texas & Tennessee is a fantastic throw-back to the band’s earlier days, before the horns, pianos and Memphis-style arrangements of recent albums like 1372 Overton Park, and Women and Work.  The formula is simple – Ben Nichols singing raspily about heartbreak and loss, with an acoustic guitar backdrop.  The four songs off Texas and Tennessee could easily fit on the bands first two records. Who knows if this signals a new direction for the band, or just a simple diversion, but the stripped-down sound certainly suits the band.

But enough about Lucero, lets get to the trains.  Union Pacific Line uses trains in a fairly common way – to convey a growing sense of distance in a floundering relationship.  A simple pounding drum beat lends the song a sense of momentum and prevents it from becoming a total bummer. The Union Pacific line is one of America’s most famous, making up one half of the first transcontinental railroad.  The sprawling line evokes the wide-open spaces of the west, as well as the great space between the narrator and his love. The image of continually leaving trains captures the ambiguity of the relationship and the failure of the narrator to get over his lover.  So we can add yet another song to what is becoming a common trend here – trains-as-relationship-destroyers.

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.

Whiskey & Co. – Southbound Train

Figured it was about time to give a nod to some local (which for me at the moment is Gainesville, Florida) train songs. Relating tales of epic binges, drunken wanderings and general debauchery, Whiskey & Co. are on No Idea Records, and their discography is mainly centered on wayward and inebriated nights out in Gainesville, an appropriately whiskey-soaked college town. I have seen them live a few times and they never fail to inspire beer-in-the-air singalongs from the crowd.  Stylistically they combine the fuck-it-all/DIY/whatever-you-want-to-call-it sensibilities of the fertile Gainesville punk scene with alt-country. Close musical compatriots to them would be Lucero or Uncle Tupelo, and the excellent female-fronted vocals add a nice extra dimension.

Southbound Train relates the story of a ride on a train traveling South, which is definitely the most common direction one usually ends up going in a train song. The train ride is used to tell the tale of a lost love, a common trope for songs about traveling on southbound trains, before the band returns to their usual themes of being drunk in Gainesville. The narrator copes with a bottle of alcohol, lamenting how they are drinking themselves to death in a one-horse town. As someone who has spent about 6 years here, this place sadly does resemble a one-horse town at times. All-in-all its a pretty standard train song, but it does show how trains have become a fairly integral facet of the No Depression/alt.country mythology.

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.

Bruce Springsteen (and Kurt Vile) – Downbound Train

Bruce Springsteen has always been a master at capturing working-class angst, whether in his harrowing descriptions of small-town, blue-collar life in the Reagan era, on classics like Nebraska, or his most recent album, which invokes one my personal favorite outbursts of labor strife – the great strike of 1877 – to provide pointed commentary about life in Great Recession America. Downbound Train, is nestled among some of Springsteen’s greatest, and most well-known hits, on Born in the USA, and though it is certainly not the most memorable track of this classic album, it is an excellent example of The Boss’s ability to speak to the ills of the downtrodden American working class.

On a most basic level, riding on a Downbound Train describes the way the narrator feels after suffering a series of romantic and economic setbacks, including the departure of his lover, and layoffs at the lumberyard that left him working a dead-end job at a car wash.  Train imagery runs throughout the song, as the man hears a whistle whining when he misses his wife at night and in the end, the troubled narrator’s downward spiral ends up with him actually working on the railroad, swinging a hammer on a railroad gang in an echo of John Henry’s demise. In contrast to train songs that use the railroad as a vehicle for salvation, or a means for escape to a better life, the train imagery in Downbound Train is almost exclusively negative in nature, perfectly capturing the downfall of a man constrained by larger economic forces, and tortured by the failure of a relationship.

In the hands of Kurt Vile, the Philadelphia-based indie/folk troubadour, the sad tale of Downbound Train is updated for our own troubled times.  Reverb-drenched guitars and Vile’s distinctively ennui-filled vocals portray the desperation of the narrator in an even darker tone. As with many of Kurt Vile’s songs, the twisting and turning guitar leads are a highlight here. The song ends with a lengthy guitar solo, opting to slowly drift away to an conclusion where Springsteen’s song simply turned down the volume.  In light of Vile’s discography full of slacker anthems (commentators have even gone so far as to label him the patron saint for the Great Recession’s legions of accidental bohemians) one can see why Vile chose to cover Downbound Train.  I would be remiss if I did not point out that Kurt Vile’s  new album also drops this week, and though it is sadly bereft of train songs, its a worthy addition to his discography.