[Originally Published: November 5th, 2010]
Railways and trains are so deeply rooted in the fabric of American music culture to the point where “train” songs actually predate recorded music. Whether it was the songs sung by the railway workers in the late 1800’s or the railcar songs sung by the freighthoppers during the Great Depression, trains came to symbolize the journey and the American working class.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the blues was literally born from the railroad tracks. It was at a train station in Mississippi where the “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy discovered the sounds that led him to compose some of the the very first blues songs such as the famous Memphis Blues. Blues music and its musicians developed a strong connection to the trains, heard in timeless blues classics such as Rock Island Line, Freight Train and Midnight Special.
Countless blues and rock musicians have been inspired by the train, and there is an endless list of songs with themes surrounding this topic. For today’s B List, I’ve attempted to crack into that list to pull out ten of the best “train” songs. I hope you enjoy.
10. The Yardbirds – Train Kept A Rollin’
This was perhaps The Yardbirds biggest hit, and was one of the first songs to carry the blues train theme over to the rock world. It was originally written by Tiny Bradshaw, Howard Kay, and Lois Mann and was first performed by Tiny Bradshaw’s Big Band in 1951. This version features Jeff Beck, who uses his guitar to recreate the sound of a train’s whistle.
READ ON for the top nine songs about trains…
9. Pat Metheny – Last Train Home
This is one of my personal favorites, and one that Umphrey’s McGee has been known to cover from time to time. The rhythm in this song is intended to replicate the sound of a train rolling down the tracks. Metheny uses his electric sitar to craft a melodic tone that is truly magical.
8. Bob Marley & The Wailers (featuring Peter Tosh) – Stop That Train
While many believe this to be a Bob Marley song, it was actually written by Wailers guitarist Peter Tosh prior to his departure from the band. It appears on Bob’s major-label debut Catch a Fire and also on Peter Tosh’s solo album Mama Africa. Both versions feature Tosh on vocals.
7. The Band with Paul Butterfield – Mystery Train
From The Last Waltz. This version features Levon Helm and blues harp maestro Paul Butterfield trading off on vocals. It’s one of the best songs of the entire performance, and my favorite version of the tune Elvis made famous. However, the original featuring James Burton on guitar ain’t too shabby neither.
6. Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train a Comin’
Also known as “Getting My Heart Back Together Again,” this song shows Jimi’s true blues roots and the influence artists such as Albert King and Elmore James had on his playing. There are various recorded versions of this song, some featuring Jimi plugged in, others featuring him on a 12-string acoustic (both featured on the Blues album). A newly released version appeared on Jimi’s latest posthumous release, Valleys of Neptune, and is perhaps the best version of the song ever recorded.
5. Gladys Knight and the Pips – Midnight Train to Georgia
One of the all-time famous “train” songs. It was originally written and recorded by Jim Weatherly, and then later by The Pips’ on their 1973 release Imagination. There was once an interview with Trey on the Phish Archive where he said that the band once listened to this tape for an entire tour, and every time they would get off the bus they would ask people when they had last heard it because it was so amazing.
4. Grateful Dead – Casey Jones
This song needs no introduction. However, not everyone knows that Casey Jones was a railroad engineer who appears in many of these “train” songs, especially some of the older bluegrass and folk songs. Jones lost his life attempting to save the passengers of his train, making him into somewhat of a folk-hero. The Dead also played and wrote several other notable “train” songs such as Big Railroad Blues, I Know You Rider and Monkey and the Engineer.
3. The Rolling Stones – Love in Vain
This is a Robert Johnson song that the Stones famously covered on their 1969 album Let It Bleed. I was once told that all rock music was based upon Robert Johnson’s 29 songs and through the years, I’ve realized this to be increasingly true. I have also read other musicians preach the same theory. This song is one of the earliest recorded blues songs that features the theme of the train. What amazes me about this version is how they took Johnson’s, already amazing, song and turned it into something completely different. It’s a song that has been in my head since I was a child, and one that I find myself singing to myself almost every day, especially when I’m on the train.
2. Bob Dylan – It takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
This is probably one of Dylan’s strongest deliveries both in terms of vocals and harp. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry was just one of those Dylan songs that was simply destined to be covered over and over again. There is an endless list of musicians who have put their spin on the song including the Dead, Little Feat, The Allman Brothers and Taj Mahal. (Thanks to Lucas from Back in 15 Minutes for helping me put this greatness into words).
1. Duke Ellington – Take the A-Train
While many believe this song to have been written by Duke Ellington, it was actually written by Billy Strayhorn, but was famously performed by The Duke Ellington Band. It’s said that the song was born from the directions Ellington gave to Strayhorn when he first moved to New York City. The directions began “Take the a-train…” It is one of the most famous jazz standards, and also one of the most important pieces of American music.