Midweek Music Break: Trainsong (A Playlist)

Still from Jim Jarmusch's 'Mystery Train' (1989)

[Image: still from Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film, Mystery Train (highly recommended!)]

A lyrical burst from Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording, 1900-1960, by Peter Doyle, in discussing Elvis Presley’s recording of “Mystery Train”:

The first words — “Train I ride, sixteen coaches long” — “back announce” the electric guitar and bass figures mimicking the sound of a train in the distance. The song is thus placed within that large body of songs — hillbilly, country, R&B, jazz and popular — that deal with trains. Songs about railway people, engineers, hobos, brakemen, or songs that chronicle train wrecks or celebrate particular rail lines. Songs in which voices or instruments mimic the minor third sound of train whistles approaching and passing by or that make use of rhythm to simulate the mechanical sound of the steam locomotive; songs that begin with a shouted “All aboard!” Songs about ghostly trains, trains to hell, gospel trains to heaven, trains that take all day to pass by, trains that take away the singer’s beloved, or (less often) bring her back. Eerie night trains that symbolize freedom to jailed singers, last trains to anywhere, trains heard in the distance, trains that take the jubilant singer away and then trains that promise to take the world-weary singer back home. Trains from which the singer is existentially excluded and trains that call individuals together into religious, social or political collectivities. Lonesome trains, blue trains, honky-tonk trains, trains of love…


I can’t think of any mode of transportation that’s inspired or just plain been referenced by more music — instrumental or vocal — than trains. (Walking? Maybe horses. Maybe.) Plenty of fun songs celebrate the automobile in general, or specific cars. But cars have got a looooong way to go to catch up to trains, and I don’t believe that’s just because trains have been around longer. Cars are instruments of solitude, of friendship, of family, as much as they are instruments of travel. But trains speak of greater distances, of community; you yourself don’t even have to be aboard, just within earshot.

The first trainsong* I ever learned was “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which starts out conventionally but — at least as we sang it in elementary school — devolved into a surreal narrative about someone named Dinah, who may or may not have been in the kitchen, and… was it…? strumming on a banjo? Huh? (Later in life I might have seen a double entendre in that line, but I didn’t know about such things in the mid-’50s.)

It didn’t make a lot of sense to pick just one of these songs today. Instead, I put together a little playlist of fourteen of them — ones I had in my own music collection. They don’t have anything else in common; one performer (Gordon Lightfoot) appears twice, and they range in length from twenty-two seconds (John Hammond, from the Matewan soundtrack) to 7:05 (Lightfoot again). Total length is somewhere around fifty minutes.

I’m not saying these are the only ones I might have included — just in keying in that sentence I thought of a couple more — but I had to get them online sometime while the term “midweek” still fit!

# Title Artist Length
01 Mystery Train Junior Parker 2:26
02 Chattanooga Choo Choo Glenn Miller 3:29
03 Steel Rail Blues Gordon Lightfoot 2:50
04 Just Like This Train Joni Mitchell 4:25
05 Orange Blossom Special Johnny Cash 3:06
06 On The Tracks John Hammond 0:22
07 Waiting For The Train To Come In Peggy Lee 3:09
08 Train To Birmingham John Hiatt 3:39
09 Downbound Train Bruce Springsteen 3:38
10 Last Train To Clarksville The Monkees 2:47
11 Take The “A” Train Duke Ellington 3:01
12 Railroad Wings Patty Griffin 4:02
13 Canadian Railroad Trilogy Gordon Lightfoot 7:05
14 Mystery Train Elvis Presley 2:29

Trainsong: A Playlist


* No, I don’t think that’s a real word. But if I had to make up a word to go there, it works, doesn’t it?

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  1. Tom Waits has a song called Train Song – which, you know, is for me an ultimate accolade for any cultural meme. And I bet he now wishes he’d called it Trainsong. (Although that does start to sound a bit like a Thai name….) “It must’ve been a train that took me away from here, but a train can’t bring me home.”

    Trains are indeed a uniquely potent image/metaphor. Even before they go into tunnels. (The first time I saw North By North-West on TV, not yet into my teens, I remember [quite possibly a subsequently manufactured memory, I know] thinking, “Hmm, that seems a bit naughty, but I don’t get why.”)

    Thank you. This is a great selection – and just what I needed on a drab midweek evening. A lot of this was new to me; but all good.

  2. Continuing my Waits idolatry for a moment (forgive me), I have to mention Downtown Train, which – apart from being a great, great not-really-a-love-song song – has the most fabulous guitar tone I’ve ever heard (Marc Ribot playing that, I believe).

    And then that’s line from Tom’s Long Way Home (better known through Norah Jones’s cover, I expect), Money’s just something you throw from the back of a train…”. That’s such a Buddhist sentiment, I’m surprised our man over at whiskey river hasn’t picked up on it yet.

    I also somehow suddenly found myself recalling a (shortly post-MacGowan breakup) Pogues song called Once Upon A Time, a hauntingly pretty being-stood-up song – actually set in a bus station rather than a train station, but it’s that same ambience: “I waited at the depot. You never showed. You missed the last bus hours ago.” (Your music nerd tendencies might be intrigued by the continuous, almost unwavering note running through this song. The album has a credit – I forget to whom – for ‘infinite guitar’ [which is a great phrase in itself].)

  3. And, oh my god, John Sayles – the ‘lifetime achievement award’ that the Academy is probably never going to give, because of his politics, but one of the greatest writer/directors of our times.

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