Scott Joplin – Crush Collision March

In 1896, someone in Texas decided it would be a great idea to promote their small regional railroad by staging a collision between two trains. If there is one thing nineteenth-century Americans loved, it was looking at the wreckage of railroad disasters.  Crowds gathered after wrecks to view grisly remains, mourn as a community and offer amateur investigative work on the cause of the calamity. On paper, this event was a perfect plan – a controlled collision that promised to both enrich the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway and give the excursionists a exciting break from the mundanity of their lives.

An estimated 30 to 60 thousand people, descended on Crush, Texas, a small town created specifically for this event, to watch the crash. The organizers even decorated the trains with bright colors and gave each a giant face.  The engines collided as planned, and the frenzied crowd rushed forward to try to claim souvenirs from the wreckage.  As a newspaper account related “the excitement of the people became so intense that it was impossible to exercise any control of them whatever, and they almost rushed on the engines before they came together.” As the crowd picked through the twisted ruins, the boiler exploded, sending fragments of metal into the crowd.  Four were killed, included a young lady who was decapitated and a photographer killed by a flying bolt, and many others were injured. The twenty thousand dollars spent by the railroad to put on the wreck ended up paling in comparison to the $200,000 spent as indemnity for the injured and killed spectators. The company fired the man in charge of the mess, but quietly rehired him after the press attention died down.

This spectacle so inspired Scott Joplin that he wrote a song about it, a jaunty ragtime number. Nothing against jaunty ragtime numbers, but this is pretty much a prime example of how the story behind the train song can be a lot more compelling than the song itself.  The song does do a nice job of capturing the tension of the moment and what I am guessing is the crash itself, somewhere around the 3 minute mark.

I stumbled into this bizarre story when I happened upon this newspaper article about the Crush, in an Alabama paper, but if you would like to know more about the Crash at Crush, someone at the Baylor Library wrote up a nice history of the event. This didn’t quite make it into the dissertation, but it was certainly close…

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Mastodon – Trainwreck

It may, or may not, (I honestly have no idea if anyone reading this knows anything about me) come as a bit of a surprise that the proprietor of this blog is a huge metalhead, and unfortunately for the parameters of this blog, metal as a genre does not have much to offer in the way of train songs. This song is a notable exception. For those untrained in the dark arts of metal, Mastodon are one of the most popular, if not the most popular, bands operating in the genre now. Since the early 00s they have been churning out a unique blend of technical wizardry and swampy, southern-fried riffage.

Trainwreck is off of Remission, the record that put these guys on the map, and the one that embittered old metalheads always wish the band would replicate. Mastodon would go on to release increasingly obtuse prog-fueled concept albums about such diverse themes as the classic novel Moby Dick, a quest to obtain a crystal skull from a blood mountain, and a time-traveling paraplegic whose soul ends up inside Rasputin’s body (seriously). Though Remission may not be my top album by the band – Leviathan takes the cake there –  it certainly comes close, and its an excellent distillation of the sound that put these guys on the map, and more so than the rest of the discography, it really focuses on the sludgy/bluesy aspect of their sound. Metal purists who maintain that the band lost the plot (in more ways than one), in their later records always hold up Remission as a classic.

As for the song itself, Trainwreck, more so than other songs about train wrecks, has the notable distinction of actually sounding like a train wreck.  The schizophrenic, jazz-inspired drumming of Brann Dailor, always a highlight of Mastodon’s songs, and cascading guitar riffage, really does sound like a train flying off the rails. A stark contrast to the scores of early 20th-century train wreck ballads, that will of course be covered here eventually, but a great train wreck song nonetheless.