Last year, National Train Day fell on Mother’s Day in the United States. It made for a pretty difficult decision. In the end, I did the right thing. I wrote about trains. I say that I did the right thing because “A Train A Train A Train A Train” has been the most popular post on this site ever since. My mom is still around, she turned 90 a few weeks ago (when I wrote about baseball). I don’t think she reads this blog. If she does, “you know I love ya” and “have a happy!”
This year, National Train Day is May 9th, the day before Mother’s Day. The day I should be out buying flowers for the cats to eat and meat to burn on the grill. Actually, I’ve got Mother’s Day covered, but I’m choosing to write about the music of trains as I try to find the best song to commemorate the day.
I don’t know how many songs have been written about trains and I surely don’t know how many artists have sung those songs. I chose the title in honor of Hank Williams Sr. but in all honesty, I don’t like the song. You can listen here, but it’s a little too old school country for me. I don’t like sad train songs or mournful train songs. About the closest I come to that is John Prine’s rendition of “Paradise” which is technically more of a protest song than a train song.
The other more melancholy train song that I do like is Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans.” Actually, it wasn’t written by Arlo Gutrie, it was written by Steve Goodman and famously performed by Willie Nelson, but it’s Arlo’s version people remember.
Similarly, I absolutely fell in love the first time I heard Rosanne Cash’s version of “Runaway Train” even though it was written and had been performed earlier by John Stewart. People write songs but sometimes other people perform them better. I own “Runaway Train” on a variety of media and it’s on half a dozen mix-CDs in my car. Ever since I first heard her perform that song, I’ve used the expression “we’re lighting the fuses, and counting to three” as a metaphor for projects that may not end well.
Gordon Lightfoot has a bunch of train songs, including his epic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “Big Steel Rail.” I enjoy both of those, but the song where Gord mentions a train that I like the most is “The Watchman’s Gone,” also melancholy but I honestly get the feeling that he could “climb aboard unseen” and I share the feeling of riding the rails like a hobo whenever I hear that song.
The Doobie Brothers offered up one of the most confusing train songs ever with “Long Train Runnin.” I was never sure if that was a train song or a love song or perhaps, a love of trains song. I also think it’s one of those songs that makes less sense as you sober up.
If you happen to be less than sober, or otherwise impaired, you are ready to sing along with another great train song, “Casey Jones” by The Grateful Dead. Come on, I know you know the chorus.
Of course, the more traditional train wreck song would be the “Wreck of the Old 97” and I prefer the version by Flatt and Scruggs, ‘cuz, you know, more banjo.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least consider a gospel song in the list and there is no shortage of them. If you’re interested in one, I’d give a listen to “This Train” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
One of my favorite kinda-sorta train songs, one that I like to sing along with in the car, and one that will eventually cause me to get a ticket, “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash.
If I wasn’t thinking about lyrics today, which I am, I’d go with “The Orange Blossom Special” by The Charlie Daniels Band. I know, hundreds of well-known and wanna-be well-known musicians have performed and recorded that song, but seriously, Charlie Daniels.
If a train song didn’t have to be really upbeat and happy, I would consider “Steel Rails” by Alison Krauss. It’s an optimistic song, but it’s just not powerful enough to celebrate this most important of days.
For National Train Day, I don’t think any of the songs mentioned above will really do, although I’ve listened to all of them while writing this and I’ll probably listen to all of them again after I push publish – you know, someone has to test these links. The song that I declare to be the official song of National Train day on No Facilities is “Southern Streamline” by John Fogerty.
Southern Streamline feels like a train. The video has lots of train footage and the train is “bringin his baby back” and there ain’t nothing better than that.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, my wife and all the mothers everywhere.