Various Artists

Train 45: Railroad Songs of the Early 1900's

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Trains, beginning in the early to mid-1800s and lasting over a hundred years into the early to mid-1900s, were the life's blood of America, transferring people, freight, and mail from one corner of the country to another. Trains were also easy metaphors for popular songs, signifying arrivals, departures, and other key stops on the long journey of life, and nothing, it has been said, makes a more lonesome sound than a far-off train whistle late at night. This intriguing collection of train songs recorded between the 1920s and the 1950s shows how deeply the train figured in popular song, sweeping across the genres from country to jazz. Included are Wade Mainer's early bluegrass version of "Ruben's Train" (here called "Old Ruben"), G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter's poignant and disarmingly offhand "He's Coming to Us Dead" (bodies of the deceased were frequently shipped by train to hometowns for burial in the early 1900s), and Uncle Dave Macon's "Death of John Henry," complete with his trademark bubbling banjo work. Also worth noting is a field-recorded version of "The Longest Train" by convicts from the Bellwood Prison Camp in Atlanta, GA. A haunting work song that confronts loss and distance while remaining a matter of utility, the rendition presented here perfectly illustrates the multiple levels of metaphor and meaning the train carries as a symbol when used in popular folk songs. In the 21st century the train retains all its power as an image of personal renewal, but has now also become a symbol itself of an earlier time, a less frenzied time when things appeared to have been easier to comprehend. That concept is an illusion, of course, because the most difficult time to comprehend is and always will be right now. But even so, in a world where blinking satellites whirl constantly overhead beaming streams of data Lord knows where, a far-off train whistle still remains one of the most poignant and forlorn sounds one could ever hear.

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