Great American Train Songs

Various Artists

album cover

"This Train's Got the Disappearing Railroad Blues"

Railroad travel has probably inspired more indisputably great songs than any other mode of transport. Sure, cars are lust objects and planes are great when you need to get far away fast. But a train—lonesome whistle blowing, mighty engines thrumming down the tracks—that's a kingsized myth in motion.

The songs on this collection immortalize individual trains and their operators—the fearsome "Wabash Cannonball" (sung here by Willie Nelson), the superfast "Orange Blossom Special" (Bill Monroe), the "Rock Island Line" (Johnny Cash). But these legends, even the towering ones, often transcend particulars. These songs are slices of life from frontier America, an era when optimism ran high and railroads built by hammers and anvils and sweat connected people with their dreams. For a long stretch of the twentieth century, the rails represented possibility, opportunity, escape; as a result, they inspired songs about loneliness ("Waitin' for a Train"), the aftershocks of desire ("Heartbreak Express"), and, really, every human emotion. At the same time, the rhythms of train travel have inspired countless musical approximations: To feel the graceful shuttling motion of a steam train, check out "Rock Island Line," which is built on a steady, unshakable backbeat. Listen to a bunch of train songs back-to-back, and you may feel like you're hearing the grand parade of American history, from westward expansion through the industrial revolution, chugging by.

Until, that is, you get to Steve Goodman's majestic "City of New Orleans." That song, considered by some to be the ultimate train song, laments the inelegant demise of railroad culture—the "disappearing railroad blues." Written in the early '70s and made into a hit by Arlo Guthrie in 1972, "City of New Orleans" is a pattering, easygoing sketch of life on the rails: As the Illinois Central train from Chicago to New Orleans ambles along, Goodman tells of the rogues in the club car playing penny-a-point poker, and the mothers with their babes rocked to sleep by the motion. He sings in a way that lets you know a grand and romantic part of America is vanishing, and it's worth caring about. If you don't sense it in the first verse, it'll hit you in the second, where Goodman describes how the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers perceive the trains their fathers ride every day. "Magic carpets made of steel," he calls them.

Genre: Country, Folk
Released: 2003, Green Hill
Key Tracks: Dolly Parton: "Heartbreak Express." Elvis Presley: "Mystery Train." Willie Nelson: "Wabash Cannonball." Bill Monroe: "Orange Blossom Special." Steve Goodman: "City of New Orleans"
F.Y.I.: The refrain of "City of New Orleans" gave the ABC-TV morning show Good Morning America its name.
Next Stop: Arlo Guthrie: Hobo's Lullaby
After That: The Grateful Dead: American Beauty
Book Pages: 812–813

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#1 from Larry Clunie - 02/21/2009 4:51

The Great American Train Songs CD listed on this site is not the same CD that is reviewed in the book.
Editor’s Note: Thank you for letting us know. We’ve fixed the image and link now.

#2 from Mark Powell, Pennsylvania - 10/13/2010 6:23

Wasn’t Steve Goodman’s song also played to the lunar landing party in 1969?

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