This Week in Elder News: 28 February 2009
On Economic Fairness

ELDER MUSIC: Railroad Songs

category_bug_eldermusic I come from a railroad family. My grandfather was a brakeman, my parents met when they both worked for the SP&S (Spokane, Portland and Seattle) Railroad in the late 1930s, which is where my great Aunt Edith also worked during the Depression and World War II.

Behind the house I lived in toward the end of the War, was a well-traveled railroad track - I suppose I lived, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. I don’t recall that the noise bothered me and I liked to watch the freight trains roll by several times a day. I was especially fascinated with the cowcatcher on the front of the engine – or maybe I just liked the word. Caboose was another favorite word then (I was about three or four) and it’s still fun to say. This is Red Foley with a terrific version of Freight Train Boogie. [1:38 minutes]

One of the music playlists I keep is train songs. There are hundreds of them in just about all styles of music and I’ve found I can organize them into subgroups. Today, the focus is on some of the early songs about the hardworking men who built the railroads 150 years ago and drove the hulking iron horses, sometimes to their deaths.

My dad taught me I’ve Been Working on the Railroad when I was a kid. The song appears to be a favorite of barbershop quartets, so here is a group called Tilt from 2006. [1:50 minutes]

Once upon a time passenger trains were given lovely romantic names. As a kid, I regularly rode one between Portland, Oregon and San Francisco called the Shasta Daylight. There were also, among others, the Denver Zephyr, the Meadowlark, the Owl and the Orange Blossom Special, a deluxe train that ran between New York and Miami from 1925 until 1953. Here’s Chet Atkins in a terrific, live performance. [3:52 minutes]

Some railroad songs are also story songs and one of the most famous is about poor, ol’ John Henry who "died with a hammer in his hand." This, from Bruce Springsteen in a live concert in England broadcast on the BBC, will wake you up on a lazy Sunday. [7:31 minutes]

I can’t very well showcase the fictional legend John Henry and leave out the real-life Casey Jones, a railroad engineer who died trying to prevent a wreck. There are dozens of versions of the lyric – apparently, just about every singer feels free to embellish. This one, by Johnny Cash, segues into part of The Wreck of the Old '97 and ends with a line or two of Railroad Man. [2:43 minutes]

Here is the entire Wreck of the Old ‘97 which happened in Danville, Virginia in 1903. This is Boxcar Willie and the video has some fascinating photos of old-time train wrecks, not necessarily Old '97. [2:29 minutes]

Many passenger trains have been named for one or more of the cities they traveled through: the Chicago Limited, the Kansas City Mule, the New Yorker, the Salt City Express, the Spirit of St. Louis and, of course, The City of New Orleans which ran between Chicago and the Big Easy for many years. A lot of singers do this song proud, but I like Willie Nelson’s a lot. [4:45 minutes]

There are many good versions of Rock Island Line. This is Lonnie Donegan from the 1950s. I don’t care much for the home-made video, but the music is good. There are those who believe the “pig iron” in the song is a reference to smuggling slaves to freedom. [2:27 minutes]


I've always been partial to trains even though the only ones I've ridden are commuter lines - well, and subways, but they don't really count as railroads. I would have loved to experience real train travel. Like with dining cars and the whole deal.

The only time I road trains with any regularity was in the early 1960s in England and Wales. The UK does it right.

The romanticism of trains probably faded for me when I tried to sell my first house which had a railroad track behind it.

Apparently having a track behind your house is still not a plus...

When I was young we used to take the train from Falmouth MA to Boston and depart at Filene's Basement (or it was Jordan Marsh, I don't remember). My mother told me she grew up thinking Boston had a roof over it.
This winter I am working on a 55 minute video on steam train operations in winter. We spent a few very cold days shooting the trains here. The Conway Scenic runs a train up Crawford Notch from summer to fall and two other trips in the valleys.
The winter footage came out so well we will be selling it through Getty Images.

Just very recently I was watching a program about trains and began thinking about how much I would like to experience an old fashion train ride once more in my life. Like a 'day trip'....something along those lines (no pun intended).

One of my grandfathers was a Conductor for Rock Island and my mother worked as a secretary for Rock Island when I was very young.

And...."She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" has always been a favorite. I also liked Stan Freberg's version of "Rock Island Line".

Trains have been an important influence on my life. My grandfather was a brakeman for the Union Pacific. One of my earliest memories of being in a train was when my grandmother and I were on a train from Kansas to Pendleton, OR. This was about 1944 and the train was carrying troops and we had to ride in the lounge car.

I also lived right next to the railroad tracks when we lived in a logging camp. Sometimes playtime was seeing how far we could walk on a rail. We were snowed in the winter of 48/49 and the train was the only thing that could make it to the camp and take out my sister who had pneumonia.

My most recent trip by train was from the midwest to Portland, OR by the northern route. Now I'm considering taking the train from Tucson to Portland.

Can I tempt you away from your music with this poem that I think you will like? I laughed aloud as I read it.

I love trains, although I've only been on them twice in my life. I wish the US had them like Europe does! I love all that music, too, especially the boogie and the barbershop quartet!

Premium T.'s grandfather was a stationmaster in New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland. The station house is long gone, but we did locate the ruins in an overgrown section of land near an old stone railroad bridge.

One of my favorite train songs is "Big Railroad Blues" as covered by the Grateful Dead. It's here, about 2:25 into the video.

I am the daughter, grandaughter, and great-grandaughter of railroaders. And yeah, I grew up with all the old railroad songs, too. My grandpa taught me to sing "I've Been Working on the Railroad" was I was small as he did the other 14 grandchildren (but I was first) and we sang it (with me conducting) for my grandparents at their 50th wedding anniversary party. I still enjoy trains. They were a big part of my life growing up.

One of my earliest memories was my mother, my six month old sister, and me taking the train from Ohio to Wisconsin to visit her parents at their dairy farm. What an adventure!!! Frankly, my mother had a lot of courage to take on that trip -- especially with what a brat I was.

My favorite train song is Tom Rush's "Panama Limited" from the album called "Tom Rush" (this was the 1965 album. There have been three albums of that name - different record companies).
I also have a soft spot for the Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones" from "Workingman's Dead". This isn't the old folk song, it's one of their own ("Driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you'd better watch your speed" etc)

In Hebrew I taught a train song to my class - they used to love it and we even did the ding-a-ling toot toot...My dream, in this life, if I ever have money is to ride on the Orient Express or someother sleeper train - but the trains of my life were the ones we took into Boston to go shopping at Filenes Basement and Jordan Marsh. They were great!!! Imagine even in the '50's having little kiosks of sorts in the train station for yummy muffins etc. I used to love to go with My Mother and Aunt so we could have lunch in a little restaurant - adjacent to the train station-called Colstones. Oh what a trip down memory lane, Ronni, your trains exude. xoxo Sheila

One of my favorites is "Amtrak Crescent" by Scott Miller and the Commonwealth. You can listen to it here:

Hi I have just seen a documentary [in England ]about the famous Flying Scotsman engine and at the end they played an amusing "novelty" song that sounds like it comes from the 1930s -unfortunately I didnt catch most of the words but I think the chorus goes "Lets take that choo choo train". I have tried to find this song on Youtube etc with no luck but now I have come across your site so I wonder if you with your knowledge of this subject may be able to help me or point me in the right direction. Meanwhile I have enjoyed listening to some of your tracks. Thanks Tim Ps Its not "Lets take the choo choo to Idaho"

nice music, reminds me of the old cowboy movies when they would build railway tracks using prisoners to arrange the railway sleepers chained.

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