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 to Mumford and Sons, in whose hands it became 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 they shouldn’t bother 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 an intense 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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6 thoughts on “Train Songs No. 7: ‘This Train’ by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

  1. Chris

    Sorry to jump in here, James, but I’m pretty sure the station in question is Chorlton, which although pretty solidly on the way out at the time of filming, wasn’t closed until, I think, 1967….

    Reply
    • James Attlee Post author

      Thanks Chris — It is has been widely accepted that the station used for filming was Chorlton-cum-Hardy, as in the film it is re-named as Chorltonville (with a temporary sign), a nod to the homeland of the artists who played on it that day. Your query made me dig a little deeper. Indeed, the station in the film was disused — but it was a totally different one a few miles away, Alexandra Park Station, on a line already closed to passenger traffic for six years when the film was made, but open to freight trains until 1988. This allowed the film-makers to redecorate the site for the day. You can find more details about the filming and the train used at the Whalley Range Community Site:

      http://whalleyrange.org/blogs/entry/1964-The-Blues-Gospel-train-comes-to-Chorlton-but-did-it

      James

      Reply
  2. markswill

    Anorak time: I actually LIVED in Chorltonville, a relatively posh housing estate in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, in the 1950s. I remember the station well, but sadly it had closed and I had left (with parents, natch) by the time of the filming. And talking of which, Sister Rosetta’s guitar solo on ‘Riverside’ remains little sort of sensational: eat your heart out Jerry Garcia. Or anyone else, really. Can you imagine it played and recorded on decent equipment nowadays?

    Reply
    • James Attlee Post author

      That’s what I’m talking about! She’s HOT. Actually, I think a lot of people would pay money for that guitar sound right now — old valve amps are selling for ridiculous amounts in these digital days. About Chortonville — what are the chances of that? You are not being an anorak, it was your home. What I think is remarkable is the fact that its name was immortalised on film as a fictitious station visited by some of the greatest names in the history of black music when you were still a little kid — and you went on to have a career for many years writing about rock & roll. It was in the stars…

      Reply
  3. Geoff Stringer

    I dont think it’s Chorlton station, as Chorlton station was not covered in like the the one on the photo.

    Reply