I always liked how johnny Cash’s and Luther Perkins’ guitars sounded like trains to me when I was small and would sit with my grandmother, and we’d listen to Rock Island Line.
I knew Woody Guthrie’s name, and that he was an American icon, but I never really understood just how much of Guthrie’s music was ingrained in me, just from living in America in the 20th century. I still don’t know as much about Woody Guthrie as I wish I did. I think I have itin my mind that it was the music of Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Leadbelly first made me want to ride trains. A little over twenty years ago, a buddy and I rode a boxcar down to beautiful, downtown Fresno. We were in Fresno until it looked like we were going to be locked in the stockyard with a couple of pit-bulls. We called dude’s girlfriend to come pick us up.
I shared this story about trains with my uncle last week, who told me about the time he and a buddy of his hopped in a boxcar and rode trains from Los Angeles to San Bernardino in the early 1960s. By the time they had been on the trains for a few hours, they decided to just catch some Chinese food in town and hitch-hike home to Los Angeles.
Trains are so Americana. No one likes being stuck behind trains, especially when we’re late, but for all of our technological advances over the years, trains are still the best way to get some things from point a to point b. And we Americans seem to have this thing about our railroads and trains. There has been a romantic attachment to hopping trains and seeing where they take us. And, the thing is, so much of the notion of the glory of hopping trains and being free is romanticized bullsh*t. Traveling alone and unarmed with cash and musical instruments can be dangerous. No one wants to get rolled and ripped off.
Dylan claimed that although he didn’t really know where home was, he wanted to keep traveling until he got there. Bob Dylan hopped a lot of trains and slept in a lot of boxcars during the early 1960s.
A few months ago, I re-discovered a sense of wanting to come home. That wore off quickly as I found that in so many ways, I had come back home. Yet, in so many other ways, home was a time and not a place for me. Perhaps I’ll keep traveling. Make a new home for a while.
So…trains. Trains are great. Trains make for great rhythm tracks–Ha! Get it?–for music. When I think of american music and trains, I guess the people I’m thinking of are Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Johnny Cash specifically. but I suspect that many other artists working in other genres have used the sounds of trains as the foundations of their music. Yeah, trains are good.