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Train Songs

31 May , 2011,
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Trains.  On and off for over twenty years, no matter where I lived in my adopted home town, I could hear the trains from one of the two sets of tracks running through town. It was comforting to me in some ways. The sounds and rhythms are still familiar to me. Sometimes, I miss the sounds of the trains. I remember the first week I stayed in my new apartment at the corner of Glen and Sant Fe–near Hoover school. I was working the overnight shift at the radio station six nights a week. I was pretty much a day sleeper. I had heard the trains coming through town, but this was insane! I was trying to sleep while it seemed to me, that the trains were coming right through the damned building. It took some getting used to. For our various photography classes in college, we would often find ourselves at the 23rd street tracks, snapping all sorts of images of trains and all things railroad. We saw things and paid attention to aspects of trains that we had never noticed before. After class, we’d all head back to our place, drink coffee and listen to Johnny Cash as we did homework. 

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.

Trains–Woody Guthrie

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 ittrain2in 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.

Trains–traveling and coming home

And there is always that call to travel.  Not necessarily a call to arrive anywhere in particular, just to make the journey. And I like taking trips.  Every once in a while, I will take a look around and realize that I’ve been ‘here’ too long.  It’s time to go.  Bob Dylan talked about the feeling of wanting to go home.  In the early 1960s, Dylan travelled across much of the United States by different means, I’m sure.   I’ll bet he hitch-hiked a lot, and I think he probably rode a lot of  trains.

leadbelly2Dylan 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.

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  • crimit


    • Miles

      Oi! Hey Jimi…