WELCOME

The Writer on the Train site was the precursor to my book Station to Station, shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award 2017, and the release of an album of music — a kind of soundtrack to the book — at the same time under the name Orphan Train. While travelling the rails researching the book I revisited some of my favourite songs written about trains. You can read about them— and hear them— by clicking on ‘recent posts’. The…

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Train Songs No. 7: ‘This Train’ by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Trains in songs represent many things: sometimes they are a way of uniting people, at others of separating them; they can an escape route or the agency by which someone is left behind; the path to the future or a reminder of a vanishing past. One of the earliest guises the train appears in is as a vehicle of spiritual deliverance, expressed nowhere more succinctly than in this song, first recorded in 1925 by Wood’s Blind Jubilee Singers and covered since by everyone from Woody Guthrie…

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Train Songs No. 6: Guttersnipe

Guttersnipe kicks off with a simple acoustic guitar figure, before Bhi Bhiman’s aching vocal kicks  in: I jumped the first train I saw, it’ll surely take me home If I had a mama, at least I’d have a place to go But I’m just a guttersnipe, I got no place to wipe my nose… The son of Sri Lankan immigrants to the US, Bhiman was raised in St Louis and is now based in San Francisco. American through and through, as…

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Train Songs No.5: ‘Take the A Train’ by Duke Ellington

This train song takes us back to 1943 and a rendition of a signature Duke Ellington/Billie Strayhorn number, taken from the movie Reveille with Beverly. The spinning record in the centre of the screen merges with footage of an oncoming locomotive over some ominous, Hitchcockian brass figures, and then we are on board an express train and the full Ellington band are there too, all polished brass and immaculate white suits. Duke flirts shamelessly with the camera, his right hand hopping as…

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Train Songs No. 4: ‘The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains’ by The Kinks

How to summarise the song-writing genius of Ray Davies? At certain moments he seems to capture the soul of England, in all its pathos, absurdity and beauty, better than anyone else.  For long periods he has disappeared from view, returning each time with a face a little craggier, hair a little less full but that thin-lipped impish smile, eerily reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, always in place. This is a vintage performance from the vaults of the BBC,…

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Train Song No. 3: Cheryl’s Going Home by John Otway

In contrast to the sweet soul of Train Songs one and two, it’s time for one of the most demented howls of anguish ever recorded as Middle England’s answer to Iggy Pop, John Otway, comes apart on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977. Accompanied only by his long-suffering sidekick Wild Willy Barrett, Otway explains his predicament. Cheryl’s leaving; he’s having a meltdown at the station. People are staring but he doesn’t care. Can you hear me shouting through the rain?…

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Train Songs No.2: ‘Friendship Train’ by Gladys Knight and the Pips

It’s the first episode of Soul Train and presenter and creator of the show Don Cornelius is encouraging us to welcome ‘Four beautiful people who represent a mighty mountain of soul…’ Straight away we are transported. These men make beige tank-tops and big collars seriously cool. Check out the choreography, the little shoulder wiggle in time with a flourish from the brass. And Gladys is looking great too, in a kind of Flintstones suede number, flowing tresses and venus-flytrap eyes….

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Train Songs No.1: ‘Back Up Train’ by Al Green

Back Up Train is introduced by instrumental stabs from a vibraphone, its metallic shimmer perfectly evoking the sound of a heavy train grinding the rails as it moves out of the station. The song pitches us straight into the singer’s mind; he has left his girl crying on the platform but realises too late he has made a terrible mistake. He asks the train to back up so that he can beg her forgiveness and take her along, ‘wherever he…

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