oke up this morning to the strangest sound; like living next to a major freeway, but more of a rumble. It woke me up, starting suddenly and rolling and rumbling like distant thunder. After a couple minutes, I got up to look out into the dark to see if I could make out what it was. The closest freeway is a mile away, and not busy at night. I couldn’t see anything that looked like a sudden LA-sized influx of traffic.
Suddenly it hit me. One of the joys of living on the north side of Sacramento is that most of these small towns were built around the railroads. I was hearing a sound I hadn’t heard like this in years—a passing freight train.
When I was a kid, my brother and I used to spend some time each summer with our grandmother. One of her houses (she seems to have moved more than most grandmothers) was right across a narrow street from railroad tracks. I remember that when we’d first arrive, each passing train would awaken me as it growled past. But by the second night, it was just a comforting background sound like the ticking and quailing and cuckooing of the huge German clock in the hallway.
Trains seem to inspire musical feelings; I know they do in me. I started making a list of train songs, and I hope to come back and spend a bit of time riding each one. For now, I’ll just spit out a stream-of-consciousness blurb for each. Let me know if you have any favorites, or if there are some I’ve missed.
If Love Was A Train (Michelle Shocked)
Why Michelle ‘Shocked’ Johnston didn’t become a major star is beyond me. Brother Max (The Gourds) is benefitting from the same near-anonimity. Guess it’s better than watching ZZ Top go from serious blues influence to slithery pop gunk.
Midnight Special (Credence Clearwater Revival)
My dad bought ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’ because it had this tune and ‘Cotton Fields.’ Since his death, I hadn’t heard the album until I got it again two weeks ago. It’s hard to laugh with joy and cry in pain at the same time.
Driving the Last Spike (Genesis)
Phil Collins accidently lets us get another glimpse of genious. Phil, Phil, Phil; come back to us and leave the trivial pop nonsense. This deserves a movie to be made of it. Collins actually did research before writing the song.
Canadian Railroad Trilogy (Gordon Lightfoot)
Gord knows how good this is; it shows up on more of his albums than any other tune I can think of. I know Lightfoot haters who say, “But that railroad song; I can listen to that.” I want to go to Canada and ride the railroads for as long as my money lasts.
Steel Rail Blues (Gordon Lightfoot)
Yeah, Canadians get trains better than USicans do. From his first album, it’s the kind of tune my Dad and his brothers would have taken to if it hadn’t been so quietly obscure.
Honky Tonk Train Time (Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis)
This one shows up in two different arrangements on the Smithsonian Jazz Collection; once on the piano set, once on the band set. (If you know someone who has these CDs, I’ll take out a bank loan to buy them. Call me; write me; send up smoke signals. I want these classics.) Kieth Emerson covered it as well. It rolls.
Hellbound Train (Savoy Brown)
How sad it was to see Foghat live in ’98. Right up until the nostalgic bit in the middle where ‘Lonesome’ Dave Peverett took the lead guitar and did some Savoy Brown. No, they didn’t do “Doin’ Right” or any of the great stuff from “Hellbound Train” but they did justice to “It Hurts Me Too.” Buy “Hellbound Train”, but don’t listen to the title track. Some clown decided the re-issue should have a fade-out ending instead of the jarring vaporisation of the original. So, buy the “Savoy Brown Collection” as well; you’ll get the original unbastardized version of “Hellbound Train” plus more rockin’ blues than you can shake a pick at.
Aww. Just took a look for some info, and found out Lonesome Dave died from complications of kidney cancer in February of 2000. What a huge loss to blues.
Southern Pacific (Neil Young)
Neil’s ‘re*ac*tor’ is one of his very best albums. Huge crunchy tunes which repeat the fact that he invented grunge and is still its master; goofball stuff like “Get Back On It” and “Motor City”:
Got locking hubs and four wheel drive
Ain’t got no radio
Ain’t got no mag wheels
Ain’t got no digital clock
(ain’t got no clo-o-o-o-o-o-ck)
and ending with the driving, gut-wrenching “Shots.” No one, no one, rocks like Neil Young.
Oh, and how ’bout the track I stole this title from, or Harry Nilsson’s “Nobody Loves the Railroads Anymore”?
Man there’s a lot of train songs. Maybe I’ll start a whole new site.