Magnetic Fields – Born on a Train

This is second Magnetic Fields song to show up here, and like the last song we posted, its off of their travel-themed record Charm of the Highway Strip. “Fear of Trains” is a catalog of railroad-related historical horrors, but this is quite simply a song about living a restless life and being “born on a train.”

The illustrious minds over in the songmeanings.com commenting section seem to think this is about vampires, and though the lines about never getting old and the walking dead may speak to this, we’d argue its more about travel than the life of the undead. The black and white music video, featuring a girl wandering a city and a small train set, is quite good at matching the mood of the song, but it does little to support the vampire thesis.

The song largely fits with the theme of the record – of drifting aimlessly and the traveling life. The narrator promises to leave a lover at some point, because he’ll “have to go when the whistle blows” because “the whistle knows my name.” As he explains, “Baby I was born on a train.” Just as we’ve seen in other train songs, trains most often symbolize travel and restlessness. The song’s story of a failing relationship, and imagery of grey mornings, neon signs and walking dead, all speak to the ambiguities of a life on the move.

On a personal level, this song had special relevance to us while in the thick of dissertation writing. At times, we reached a level of obsession that had us feeling like we were also “born on a train.” The song, like most of their stuff, is also catchy as hell – good luck getting it out of your head!

The Arcade Fire did a pretty nifty cover of the tune as well – here’s the video for that:

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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.