Author: Compton, Cliff


In Yakima Washington, I lived on a dead end street next to an apple orchard and kitty-corner from a cow pasture. Across that pasture was a set of tracks that ran by a hobo jungle out in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of the night Iíd hear the whistle blowing as the train passed through on itís way to Wapato and White Swan and Iíd lay in bed listening and wondering.

Had a dog named rusty who used to howl when that whistle blew and I felt sort of like he did, but my parents didnít feel the same thing, so they got rid of him.
I used to think about those trains when my dad would get up in church with his four string banjo and play ďlife is like a mountain railroadĒ and Iím not sure I got the message of the song, but I sure liked the fact that it was about trains.
When I moved to Kansas city, my and my buddies would go down Cliff Drive down by the railroad tracks, where the bums used to sleep, where they drank all night, littering the hillside with whiskey bottles, and old mattresses, between train rides, and we would bust the bottles, spin yarns and hope a train would come down the track slow enough for us to get on.

Well, invariable a train would come, and one day there was one slow enough to catch and my friend David and I pulled ourselves into a boxcar and decided to see the world.

The world was a lot smaller than. For us, at 13 years of age, it was about a mile long, and we got to thinking about railroad bulls, and escaped train riding criminals, and that train started to moving awfully fast. And it was getting close to lunch time so I decided to jump, and thereís a lot of gravel by those tracks, and I reckon Iím really lucky to still be around, because I bounced and ended up pretty close to those wheels.

But there just something about those trains.

I lived in a house outside of Portland Oregon that was right next to the tracks. I mean RIGHT next to the tracks. At night the house would start to shake and Iíd hear the rumble, and then that big old yellow light would shine through my bedroom window, lighting up the night in kind of a dream amber and the window panes would shake and my bed would feel like one of those cheap motel beds, where you put in a quarter and the bed vibrates till you feel like as milkshake, and I got to where I slept right through it. In fact I missed it, and felt strangely disquieted if the scheduled train somehow didnít come by.

And maybe thatís another reason why I like bluegrass music. All those train songs. We are all going somewhere in this here life. Might as well ride there on a train.

Iím thinking about the fairgrounds in Turlock. Where we hold so many of our campouts. Iím thinking about those trains that run through all night long. Some folks are annoyed by them. Some folks like to change the key of the song they are playing to match the tone of the train whistle. With me, as Iím laying there in bed, and I hear that whistle and I feel the rumbleÖ.
Itís a lullaby.

Posted:  7/16/2011

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email