Author: Ramos, Jean

Train of Thought

A few years ago we spent a few days at Fort Bragg, a beautiful coastal community; the perfect place to escape the summer heat of the inland valleys and delta region of California. The highlight of our trip was to ride the “Skunk Train.” From Fort Bragg, we followed the Noyo River through the redwoods to the Northspur Station. After a lunch break, we boarded the train for our return trip to Fort Bragg. There was a man with a guitar who accompanied us on this ride. As he walked from car to car, he sang every train song I’ve ever heard. There are hundreds of songs with train themes.

Most of you know I am a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman; also known as The Father of Country Music, and The Blue Yodeler. He actually worked as a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroads. He spent much of his youth in the Mississippi Delta region, which accounts for the strong delta blues influence in his music. Did you know that Louis Armstrong played his horn on Jimmie’s recording of “Standing on the Corner?” Armstrong’s wife played the piano. Jimmie did his share of train songs.

Train songs lend themselves well to the blues. There’s nothing more haunting than the sound of a train whistle in the middle of the night. If you are close enough to hear the drivers as the train passes or to see the stoic faces of the passengers through the window, it can conjure up many scenarios in your mind. Many train songs have to do with lovers breaking up. That is the theme of Hank Snow’s song, The Golden Rocket. “I’m tired of running on the same old track, bought a one-way ticket and I won’t be back, this Golden Rocket’s gonna blow my blues away.” Jimmy Martin’s song, Mr. Engineer, is another of those “jilted lover, I’m outta here” songs. “Engineer, reach up and pull the whistle, let me hear that lonesome sound, for it blends with the feeling that’s in me, the one I loved has turned me down.” Consider the lyrics to Blue and Lonesome; “The lonesome sound of a train goin’ by makes me want to stop and cry. I recall the day it took you away; I’m blue and lonesome too. When I hear that whistle blow, I want to pack my suitcase and go, the lonesome sound of a train going by, makes me want to stop and cry. A happy train song is hard to find.

In the period between 1854 and 1929, The Orphan trains would take homeless orphaned children to farming regions where they would be adopted and put to work. Many of them were very young and were separated from their siblings never to be united again. Dry Branch Firesquad did a song (Orphan Train) about this sad occurrence in America’s history. “Once I had a darlin’ mother, though I can’t recall her name; I had a baby brother who I’ll never see again, for the Children’s Home is sending us out on the Orphan Train, to try to find someone to take us in.” My friend Paula Lane, a wonderful vocalist/dobro player has made a music video called “Child of Troubled Times,” that shows the plight of these children who were carried away on the Orphan Trains. It is well worth your time to watch. Here is the link:

In addition to songs about trains, there are songs about the people who rode them, worked on them; the soot covered firemen, the engineers, the railroad ladies, the hobos, and the gandy dancers. Oh, we mustn’t forget the steel driving men like John Henry whose job it was to hammer a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives when constructing railroad tunnels. One real tearjerker was a song done by Hank Snow called The Engineers Child. “A little child on a sickbed lay and death was very near; she was the pride and only child of a railroad engineer. His duty called him from those he loved and seeing that hope was dim, while a tear he shed, to his wife he said, ‘Just have two lanterns trimmed. Just hang a light as I pass tonight, hang it where it can be seen, if our baby’s dead just show the red, if she’s better then show the green.’ In a little house by the railroad track, a mother with watchful eye saw a gleam of hope and a feeble smile as the train went rushing by. Just one short look was his only chance to see the light agleam. In the midnight air there arose a prayer; Thank God the light was green.”

There has always been something alluring about a train. When I was a youngster, many little boys wanted to be a train engineer when they grew up. I know many grown men who are train aficionados. My friend Michael Sharps is one of those. You may view some of his beautiful train photography by visiting this link:

The Lionel Train was a popular toy during the 40’s and 50’s. Today, Thomas the Tank Engine is the toy of choice for many little boys. There was a children’s book written back in 1930 called “The Little Engine that Could.” The mantra of the little engine was, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” It’s a wonderful story that teaches children that hard work and optimism will lead to success.

There are songs about specific trains such as The Wabash Cannonball, The Fireball Mail, and The Orange Blossom Special, which incidentally are the only somewhat happy train songs I can think of. There are other songs about tragedies involving trains; The Wreck of the Old 97, and Ben Dewberry’s Final Run. What train songs do you have in your repertoire? Blue Railroad Train, Hobo Bill’s Last Ride, Folsom Prison Blues, In the Pines, The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home are all great songs with train themes. Tom T. Hall wrote a song that describes the end of an era; “The Engineers Don’t Wave from the Trains Anymore.” We keep the romance and allure of that bygone age alive through our train songs, learn one today.

Last month I wrote about my friend Loretta whose time on earth was drawing to a close. The song that comes to mind today is Life’s Railway to Heaven. Here are the chorus and last verse. “Blessed Savior, Thou wilt guide us, Till we reach that blissful shore, Where the angels wait to join us in Thy praise forevermore. As you roll across the trestle, Spanning Jordan’s swelling tide, You behold the Union Depot into which your train will glide; There you’ll meet the Sup’rintendent, God, the Father, God the Son, With the hearty, joyous plaudit, “Weary Pilgrim, welcome home.” Loretta completed her journey and made it safely home on February 13, 2013.

Posted:  2/24/2013

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