I guess if you had to pick subject matter for songs, love songs and gospel songs rank right up there at the top, but at least in these United States right up there close to number three has to be songs about railroad trains. Other means of transportation get their due (i.e., cars and airplanes), but none of them come close to the choo choo. And some of the songs about railroads have become so commen that when we think of country music, jazz, or pop songs we can’t really put together a set without a “Wabash Cannonball” or a “Broke Down Engine” or a “Chatanooga Choo Choo.” Other countries don’t seem to have the musical glamorization of their trains. I’ve heard Slim Dusty sing “The Indian Pacific,” but thats the only Australian train song I know about. I’ve never heard a song about the Orient Express, one of Europe’s most famous trains. There are a few songs about Canadian trains (“The Canadian Pacific” comes to mind) but we here in the United States have the train song genre tied up in a tight knot.
We have train song festivals, one right here in Poway, held yearly, and I thought with the availability of YouTube and other ways of finding songs I might suggest a few seldom-heard train songs that would add a bit of luster to these celebrations. Let’s start with the Delmore Brothers and Wayne Raney and some songs that don’t get heard often enough like “Red Ball to Natchez” (great harmonica and guitar boogie piece) or “Blue Railroad Train (Doc Watson did this one, too, but the Delmores do it better). “Freight Train Boogie” (just Alton and Rabon Delmore on this one). There are other Delmore Brothers train songs (you can look them up) and many are worth reviving. Bob Nolan (one of the founders of the Sons of the Pioneers) wrote some great train songs but maybe none as great as “One More Ride” (the SoP recorded this and so did Hank Snow. Utah Phillips used to sing it a lot and it’s sure worth keeping around). Jimmie Rodgers did a lot of well-known train songs (“Waiting for a Train,” “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” and “Train Whistle Blues). Let me suggest “The Mystery of Number Five” and “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run” by Jimmie for a listen and revival.
There are lots of songs about train wrecks and disasters. One of the first big selling country songs was Vernon Dahlhart’s “Wreck of the Old 97.” Vernon did some other disaster songs that are worth reviving, such as “The Wreck of the Royal Palm Express,” “The Wreck of the 1256,” and “The Wreck of the Number Nine.” He also did a delightful train novelty song called “The Runaway Train” that’s worth a listen as well as one called “The Lightning Express.” Blind Alfred Reed did “The Wreck of the Virginian” and Grayson and Whitter did “Train No. 45.” Most any country artist had a train wreck song in his set during the ’20s and ’30s.
Uncle Dave Macon did one called “Train Done Left Me and Gone”; Harry MacClintock (Haywire Mac) did “Jerry Go and Oil That Car,” along with all those bum and hobo songs. Frank Marvin (Gene Autry’s early sidekick) did “Ridin’ on the Elevated Railroad,” “Walking Down the Railroad Track,” and “I’m Riding the Blinds.” West Virginia’s Frank Hutchison did “Train That Carried My Girl From Town” and Clarence Ashley did “The Train Done Left Me.”
There are several versions of “The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train,” with several stories told therein. My favorite version is the one sung by Red River Dave McEnery, which starts with “Conductor is a fine old man, although his hair is gray. He works out in the sunshine and the rain. But the Angels all are sober as he rides all alone in the little red caboose behind the train.” A sad song but well written. The ’30s brought Roy Acuff and, while many of his train songs are well known, some weren’t performed very often, like “The Night Train to Memphis,” “The Streamlined Cannonball,” “Tennessee Central Number Nine,” and “The Fireball Mail.”
Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarlton did “Down in Florida on a Hog” and “Freight Train Ramble.” Charlie Monroe did “Bringin’ in the Georgia Mail,” Jimmie Davis did “The Davis Limited” (harmonica players take note), The Dixon Brothers (Dorsey and Howard) did “Beyond Black Smoke,” and Roy Harvey’s “The Brave Engineer” and backed up Charlie Poole on “Bill Mason” (a train song with a happy ending). That wheel on the track sound was made for swing and western swing, and you hear tunes like Louis Armstrongs “Hobo Ride This Train” and Bill Boyd’s “Get Aboard That Southbound Train.” During the 1940s Hank Williams did “The Panamerican” and the “California Zepher,” and the Maddox Brothers and Rose did “The Coal Black Choo Choo” and other train rhythm songs. Hank Snow did a bunch of songs with train themes, and moving over to blues and rhythm and blues the train theme pops up all along the line from Henry Thomas’ “Railroadin’ Some” in the 1920s to Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” in the 1950s.
Beyond that and right up to the current railroads (both Black Smoke Choo Choo’s to Diesel Streamliners) are sung about, talked about, romanticized, and are an importent part of our folklore and culture. Check out these songs on YouTube or Pico or wherever you might find them. Get the lyrics and learn them. That’s the way we keep these old traditions alive by passing them on and down.