Barton Carroll – It Had to be a Train

To say Avery County, North Carolina is an interesting place would be an understatement. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains and boasting the highest elevation of any county east of the Mississippi, its unique geography is paired with an equally odd mix of residents and developments. Elements of old Appalachia – rural poverty, vast swathes of the county lacking cell phone service, and weekly bluegrass pickings at country stores – coexist along glaring symbols of gentrification like ski slopes, upscale clothing boutiques, multimillion dollar homes and ubiquitous hordes of elderly Floridians. Add in a thriving industry of tourist traps like gem “mines,” garish displays of both natural and unnatural fall foliage and festivals venerating woolly worms, and you’ve got a truly bizarre mix, but one cannot help but notice the ever-present tensions between old and new development. One of my favorite chroniclers of the region, author Ron Rash is perhaps the best at capturing the tensions between old and new Appalachia in short stories about down-on-their-luck meth addicts and rural folk. Massive new subdivisions always seem to be lurking on the edges of his grim vignettes; just as mansions and condos popping up on surrounding ridges jarringly disrupts the natural beauty of this area. It’s a county that also happens to be, as of August, my new home, and we found ourselves on the knife’s edge of this conflict while being aggressively tailgated while attempting to navigate treacherous mountain roads in a car with Florida plates.

Coincidentally enough, this rural mountain county of 18,000 is also the subject of a new concept album of sorts from Barton Carroll, a songwriter who grew up in Avery County before moving out west to Seattle. With his distance from North Carolina, its safe to say Carroll’s nostalgia tinted view of Avery County life falls into the traditional side of this area’s divide between history and change. In an interview (an album stream is linked here as well), Carroll described the record as “reflections of an upbringing in the Appalachian Mountains seen through the lens of several years of city life on the West Coast” and its full of folk-tinged songs about lost loves and mountain memories, in the best storytelling tradition. My favorite off the record is probably “Beech Mountain Waltz,” a doomed love story about a World War 1 where a soldier goes to war while his lover dies of the Spanish Flu.

And thankfully, for the purposes of this site, he also includes a train song, “It Had to Be a Train,” yet another sad train song about a departing lover, this time leaving from Boone. There is a clever hint of self-awareness about the somewhat cliched plot of the song – the narrator mocks her choice of transportation “don’t you know the train’s outdated these days.” And indeed, a picky railroad historian would note that the last major railroad operating in the county, the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, or “Tweetsie Railroad” was washed out in a 1957 flood. But it’s definitely an effective train song that fits well on a record built around fuzzy and somewhat distorted remembrances of the past.

Incidentally, the album just came out Tuesday (October 15) – so check it out on Skybucket Records. I’ve been playing it a lot lately, and not just because its about Avery County!

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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!

Doc Watson – The Train That Carried My Girl From Town

Lonesome Whistles is now coming at you from a brand new location up in the North Carolina mountains, so in honor of this change in scenery, today’s song comes from local bluegrass legend the late Doc Watson. Enshrined in a statue in downtown Boone (right up the road from me now), Watson has a lengthy discography chock full of train songs. Continuing in the common theme of trains-as-relationship-destroyers, “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town” has a plot about as complex as the title – a train is carrying away the narrator’s girl, and he is upset about it. From the lyrics its a little unclear if the woman left on her own or if some rounder stole her off, but whatever the cause of the singer’s plight, the song features a threat to shoot the rounder, and a grim and rather explicit wish that the train would wreck and break the engineer’s neck. The poor engineers never seem to do well in these old train songs, but at least this song only wishes for a wreck, instead of reporting the tragic results of one.

The song was originally made famous by Frank Hutchinson, a West Virginia born musician who owes his musical origins partly to listening to a blues playing black railroad worker while growing up. He also was part of the earliest 1920s generation of country singers that burst into the national consciousness with the 1927 Bristol recording sessions. Of course, Hutchinson, and many of the other musicians involved in these session were often not the sole authors of these songs. According to Norm Cohen’s Long Steel Rail, the go-to source on old train songs, Hutchinson learned the song from a black musician named Bill Hunt, who sang to entertain miners in West Virginia’s coal mines. Hutchinson recorded the song in 1926 in New York City, along with a few other train songs, and the song was later adopted by Doc Watson, who made a career out of bringing old folk songs like this to life for new audiences. The original version is below, though I personally prefer the speedy picking and the more upbeat feel of Doc Watson’s rendition.

Chatham County Line – The Carolinian

In honor of my impending move (later this summer) to the North Carolina mountains, today we have a bluegrass song about the Tarheel state. As far as genres are concerned, bluegrass may be one of the most train-friendly. Listening to a Doc Watson greatest hits album is almost like listening to my train songs playlist, so this will certainly not be the last time some bluegrass shows up here. Along with Trampled by Turtles, The Fox Hunt, and Old Crow Medicine Show, Chatham County Line are one my favorite new bluegrass groups out there. Their Carolina roots run deep, both in the band name, and the subject matter of their songs.

Just as Chatham County Line offers up a modernized take on bluegrass, The Carolinian is twist on one of the oldest train song tropes – the lover leaving on a train.  In this case, the romance starts on the train itself, when the singer falls for a woman on the southbound Carolinian train, heading from DC to NC.  But she is bound for Richmond and the narrator is on the way to Raleigh, where he already has a woman about to bear him a son.  Before she leaves she asks him to come to Richmond and start a new life.He declines, but the decision always lingers in his mind, and every time he sees the north bound Carolinian, his heart stops. He even brings his son (now grown up) to the tracks to watch trains roll by.  The Carolinian is a still-active Amtrak route, though I must say, my experience riding Amtrak, while pleasant enough, had none of the glamor of the song.  My seat partner was a dude bound for a bachelor party in Miami, who woke up hungover after drinking too much in the snack car, and the only hints of a rail-bound romance was when an older man aggressively (and unsuccessfully) hit on a younger woman a few seats behind me. But the song tells a great story, and it presents an entirely new way in which trains can inflict emotional carnage.

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.