Train Station Nation

Freight train, freight train, run so fast,

Freight train, freight train, run so fast,

Please don’t tell what train I’m on,

So they won’t know what route I’m on.

Elizabeth CottonThe Internet is Right - Oz, from Chapel Hill, N.C., wrote that popular folk tune in 1907. She taught herself to play her brother’s guitar by laying it flat on her lap, using the pointer finger of her left hand to play the three bass strings while plucking the melody on the treble strings with her thumb. She was twelve years old. As if running away at such a tender age wasn’t enough, she wrote about where she should be buried and the sound she wanted to hear in the afterlife, the rumbling of the midnight train and its lonely call.

In many respects, Elizabeth, dying at the age of 92, and certainly her song, outlasted the steam freight trains which revolutionized the world over the course of her lifetime. Train songs stopped at all musical stations over the musical landscape of the early twentieth century: country, folk, musical, rock, pop. They howled through mountain tunnels steel-driven by black inmates (The Ballad of John Henry (trad. 1870), steered heroically by engineers like Casey Jones (The Ballad of Casey Jones, Wallace Saunders, 1900), transported hobos like Woody Guthrie (This Train is Bound for Glory, 1930), smuggled loads of pig iron (The Rock Island Line, Leadbelly, 1934), were romanticized (On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, Johnny Mercer, 1944), dreamed about (Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash,1955), and thoroughly rocked and rolled (People Get Ready, Curtis Mayfield, 1965; Hear My Train a Comin,’ Jimi Hendrix, 1967; Peace Train, Cat Stevens, 1971).

Fire Antlers by Fire AntlersIt was the automobile that killed the train’s musical culture. Train technology became mundane, outdated and outclassed by the individuality of the car. ‘Ridin’ in my automobile’ sang Chuck Berry, and he stopped the train in its tracks (No Particular Place To Go, Chuck Berry, 1964). The highway was freedom, marketed by songwriters better than any high-priced Ford ad-man (Six Days on the Road, Dave Dudley, 1963; Little Deuce Coupe, Our Car Club, Shut Down, and 409, Brian Wilson, 1963).

I don’t hear too many tunes about cars or any technology in this century. Is it because computers just don’t capture the imagination the way ‘Leavin’ on the midnight train’ does? (Anyone want tickets to my new Broadway hit, Hello, Cell Phone?)

Or, is there a deeper, more profound disconnect now between what we do and what we sing–between our technology and our culture? We don’t hear a far off sound, almost human, of a lonely whistle anymore; instead, we are surrounded by a confining, technology, at once pervasive and inhumane. Have we buried ourselves too deeply to hear ‘old Number 9’?

When I die, Lorde, bury me deep
Way down on old Chestnut street
Then I can hear old Number 9
As she comes rolling by.

 

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About Kid-Scissor Hybrid

Online zine of technology + humanity with stories both real and fictional. Celebrating and fearing the inevitable!

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