I will no longer be updating this site. This is not because the writer on the train project has finished: in a sense it is just starting, with the publication of my book Station to Station by Guardian Books in May 2015 and the release of an album of music — a kind of soundtrack to the book — at the same time under the name Orphan Train.
To keep up with developments and hear about events, please go to my main website by following this link
In previous posts we have seen songwriters use trains to represent many things: they can be a way of uniting people, or of separating them; an escape route or the agency by which you are left behind; a route to the future or a remnant of a vanishing past.
One of the earliest such tropes is of the train 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 to Mumford and Sons, in whose hands it becomes a suburban-hillbilly singalong. To Sister Rosetta Tharpe This Train signified something rather different.
Originally from Mississippi, Tharpe was raised in Chicago where she began singing and performing in church at six years old. By the time she was 30 she had become a genuine superstar, her vocal and guitar styles influencing rock and roll performers including Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. In this clip she is playing to a predominantly white, seated audience, as she increasingly did in the latter half of her career, and she hams it up a little for the camera, the sweat rolling down from beneath her blond wig.
This train is a clean train, this train….
What does a potential passenger have to sign up to, to be considered clean? Rosetta elaborates. Heaven does not admit winkers, jokers, crap-shooters, cigar-smokers, tobacco-chewers, liars, back-biters or whisky-drinkers. The train may be bound for glory, but it won’t pull such people, so there is no use their queueing for a ticket. The list of sins enumerated is straight out of the rule-book of the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) Temple Rosetta attended in Chicago as a child, with its emphasis on holiness and physical purity. These are the values she still aspired to, despite a string of broken marriages and a love affair with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight which was an open secret in the music business.
As she reaches the guitar break she backs away from the mike and looks up to the ceiling, a trademark gospel trick that made her early audiences feel she was in direct communication with a higher power. On this occasion her solo is restrained, thoughtful but note-perfect, her train’s progress towards glory unhurried but unstoppable. Rosetta was one of the first performers to tour the United States, along with her band and her backing singers, the Rosettes, in a bus with her name on the side of it. This was not mere showbiz pazzaz; playing to packed theatres, her band could not get served in restaurants or lodged in motels in many parts of segregated America, so the bus was fitted out with sleeping quarters. When she spoke of a need for deliverance, she knew of what she sang.
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In 1963, Granada Television in the UK set up a tour featuring a number of performers including Rosetta, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Terry and Brownie McGhee, their progress filmed for a TV feature. Aged 49, on a cold, wet British afternoon, Rosetta Tharpe found herself in a disused railway station outside Manchester, performing to an audience of English beatniks and students located on the other side of the tracks. Undeterred by the metaphorical import of this situation she turned in a regal performance, the British television audience treated to the unfamiliar sight of a middle-aged African-American woman sporting an elegant coat and a Gibson guitar effortlessly dominating a windswept railway platform.
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Finally, if you want to see Ms Tharpe and her guitar really rock, check out this clip — her portable amp, positioned in front of the backing choir, is cranked right up and she lets rip on the solo. A real Christmas Cracker.
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To see more music, search posts selecting the category ‘Train Songs’
Guttersnipe kicks off with a simple acoustic guitar figure, before Bhi Bhiman’s extraordinary voice soars 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, likely to talk about his love of sports and rock music in interviews, he remains connected to his heritage. His parents grew up poor in their home country; his mother didn’t have a pair of shoes until she was 12 years old. Perhaps this back-story has helped him imagine himself inside a hobo’s head, from where he has crafted this twenty-first century addition to the long American tradition of train-jumping ballads. For the purposes of the song he is just a vagabond, hoping the lawmen don’t catch him a second time:
A buzzard riding the rails
I steal my meals when all else fails…
All he has, out there on the tracks, hidden in a wagon pulled by a long, slow freight train, is time. Despite his hunger and apparent misfortune, he is seduced by the sounds that surround him.
The train beats a rhythm, and I love to sing along
A music video can’t take us back to the historical moment when the greatest such songs were written. Instead, its footage comes from Sri Lanka, where trains are still as central to the national infrastructure as they once were in the United States, and where the same, universal longing to escape to a better life is played out every day.
Even though it speaks of straightened times, Guttersnipe comes fully loaded with optimism. The train will carry its resident hobo home, whenever he can work out where ‘home’ is, fulfilling its age-old function in service of the American Dream. Wherever he’s headed, until that Dream rolls up, he’ll just keep riding and singing. He is, after all, ‘well on the way to feeling fine’. As I hope you will be after you hear this song.
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For our next train song we are going 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 he strikes each chord in the intro of the orchestra’s signature tune. After a roll on the drums and a brass flourish, the curtain at the back of the carriage flicks aside and Betty Roché sashays in, singing the verse.
Hurry hurry hurry, take the A Train
To get to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem…
The A Train, of course, is the longest subway in New York, running all the way from Harlem out to furthest Queens. Langston Hughes wrote about Sugar Hill in The New Republic in a piece called Down Under in Harlem in 1944. “If you are white and are reading this vignette, don’t take it for granted that all Harlem is a slum. It isn’t. There are big apartment houses up on the hill, Sugar Hill, and up by City College — nice high-rent-houses with elevators and doormen, where Canada Lee lives, and W. C. Handy, and the George S. Schuylers, and the Walter Whites, where colored families send their babies to private kindergartens and their youngsters to Ethical Culture School.” Duke was living the sweet life on the hill in the 1940s, as well as appearing in Hollywood movies and fronting the hottest band on the road. So this really was a place that life could start over — the A Train truly could get you to where you were going in a hurry.
But wait a minute — this is no subway train; we aren’t on our way to Harlem — it seems even jazz royalty can’t take us that far uptown in a mainstream Hollywood movie in 1943. Instead, the projected landscape slipping past between the slats of the window blinds is that of some anonymous, mid-west prairie, the train changed from a means of escape to a forum of sanitised entertainment. But even the magic of cinema can’t extinguish Harlem entirely. The rhythm of the A Train is in the tune’s DNA; beneath all the slickness and the showbiz clowning there’s the precise elegance of the Duke’s solo and, just after he’s finished, the rasping breath of Ben Webster’s saxophone over the brass, a hot wind blowing in from a wild night somewhere else.
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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, recorded in 1969, dry ice turning the studio into a steam-era station.
Like the last of the good ol’ puffer trains,
I’m the last of the blood and sweat brigade,
And I don’t know where I’m going, or why I came, sings Davies.
By choosing a steam train as the subject of his song – indeed, by identifying himself as one – Davies taps instantly into a vein of nostalgia for a vanishing world; but it isn’t really trains he’s worried about, it’s all the other things that are disappearing: the North London culture he grew up surrounded by and that lives so vividly in his songs, the friendships of his youth, the British working class itself.
Like the last of the steam powered trains
I’m the last of the good old renegades.
All my friends are middle class and grey
but I live in a museum, so that’s OK.
The world in Davies’ songs does indeed feel like a museum. He’s still young and hip, but he sees forwards in time with a prophet’s vision that marks him as spectrally old: all this richness, the complexity of the world he knows, will slip out of focus, to be replaced by Starbucks, Facebook, The X-Factor. Before it goes he is intent on capturing it all on vinyl, an anthropologist in his own back yard.
He’s the poet laureate of small, overlooked things, from sunsets on Waterloo Bridge to custard pies and Desperate Dan comic strips, and once he’s catalogued them and they are combined with brother Dave’s killer guitar riffs (albeit in this case one lifted pretty straight from Howlin’ Wolf), they gain an immortality of sorts. That’s the only way he knows as an artist to counter the stranglehold of conformity that has mutated his friends into nine-to-fivers. He’s not ready to clean up and settle down – all this peaceful living is driving him insane.
But Davies isn’t just a sentimentalist. Of course he knows the technology he’s singing about is an obsolete pile of junk; by implication, so is he – one of the scum and soot brigade. The world’s probably got no more place for a Muswell Hillbilly than it has for a good old steam-powered train. But he wasn’t ready to give up the struggle all those years ago and it seems, from what we see and hear, he still isn’t ready. In fact, as he promises in this song, he may well keep rollin’ to his dying day.
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After 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?
Is there a way to stop the train?
Same old question, feller, same old question… The thing you have to learn about trains is that in songs (unlike in real life) they always depart on time, especially when separating lovers who’ve had a misunderstanding (see Train Song No 1, Back Up Train by Al Green).
The whistle moans and I’m alone
And Cheryl’s going home
Don’t be misled by the first two minutes that you are about to watch a conventional, if rough-around-the-edges, rock and roll performance. The cue for strangeness comes when Barrett turns his guitar down ominously low. Otway first takes off his acoustic and then his belt. The thought pops into your mind, why did he just do that? He’s not about to go through airport security — such a thing didn’t even exist in the innocent world in which this footage was recorded. Let’s just say that any airport personnel who watched this clip through to the end and saw him coming would have invented it double-quick.
That train, that bloody train, he sings, is going chuff chuff chuff down the track… Now he is the train, running backwards and forwards across the stage, somersaulting over Barrett’s foot pedals and temporarily disabling his one-man back-up band. If you haven’t seen this before I won’t give away what happens next, but before the credits roll, the personal disintegration chronicled in the song is given a very physical manifestation, full of pathos and desperate ambition, a combination that has earned Otway the title The Patron Saint of Failures. Rest assured any injuries incurred weren’t fatal, as the man just turned 60 and hired The Empire Leicester Square for the premier of a film based on his career.
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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.
But we are here for the music: the trademark distorted guitar sound of psychedelic-era soul, the impossibly tight brass arrangement, the funk.
‘Calling out to everyone across the nation
The world today is in a desperate situation…’
So what does the train represent in this train song? Justice, Gladys explains; freedom, harmony, peace, love, and as always, a way out of present troubles. But this train isn’t bound for glory; it doesn’t offer a ride to Zion or escape from slavery. Instead it offers a communal space where differences can be worked out and new relationships made.
‘Get on the friendship train’, Gladys tells us. ‘Everybody shake a hand, shake a hand…’
This is then, a little like a commuter train. Anyone can get on board. A moving microcosm of society, a coming together on the track. How different that morning ride into the city would be if we all took Gladys’ words to heart! Shake a hand, people, shake a hand…
Soul Train itself of course was a window for African-American youth culture at a time when it wasn’t represented elsewhere on national TV. Sadly Cornelius, who made the pilot for the show with $400 of his own money, left us earlier this year, at the age of 75. If he lost his way a little in his later years, experienced a few troubles of his own, so that in the end he couldn’t see a way out, at least when we look back at this clip we see him realising his dreams, practically choking with excitement as he announces the stars appearing on the first episode of his new show: ‘The very gifted and talented Gladys Knight and the dancing, swinging, singing Pips!’
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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 is bound’, into the future. Unsurprisingly the locomotive pays no heed and keeps rolling inexorably forward, so Al entreats the conductor, telling him ‘all you’ve got to do is turn this train around’.
But Al, that’s the one thing a train cannot do. You made a wrong decision. You’ll never forget the girl standing there with tears rolling down her face, but life’s like a train carrying you along, there’s no going back. No wonder, just before the fade, Mr. Green lets out a beautiful, falsetto howl of anguish, as lonely as a train-whistle on a midnight bridge.
Listen to Back Up Train here:
Writer on the Train would like to thank Jon Savage for his help in finding material for this series