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.

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 in 2012, 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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