The railroad has a special place in the blues. Lovers leave on the train, singers go searching for them by the train, the gospel train is on its way, and the ramblin’ bluesman needs to board that train and ride.
Railroads were one of the major infrastructural and economic achievements of the nineteenth century and loomed large in the lives of people as the blues began to develop. You recall that the story of the very beginnings of the blues was at a railway station – in 1903, whilst waiting for a train in Tutweiler, Mississippi, bandleader W.C. Handy heard a man running a knife over the guitar strings and singing. He said,
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”
Handy later published an adaptation of this song as “Yellow Dog Blues,” and became known as the “Father of the Blues.”
Freed slaves had built the railroad with their blood, sweat and tears, and in the early years of the twentieth century, it was the primary means of transport for people for longer distances. For itinerant blues musicians like Robert Johnson, trains allowed them to move from place to place and ply their trade. Johnson’s sister, Annye Anderson, in her book, Brother Robert, remembers Robert “hoboing” around on the train, going back and forth from Memphis to the Delta for his music. His famous train song, of course, is Love in Vain.
The train was the means of escape, too, for black people wanting to leave behind the injustice of the Jim Crow South and seek a better life in the North and West. From 1916 onwards, around 6m people moved away from the racist ideology, the lynching and the lack of economic opportunity to cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and New York. Famously, McKinley Morganfield – Muddy Waters – boarded a train for Chicago in 1943 to become the “father of Chicago blues” and pioneer electric blues.
Trains in the South were, of course, segregated. In the “colored” section, there were no luggage racks, requiring travellers to cram their suitcases around their feet; and the bathroom there was smaller and lacked the amenities of the “whites” bathroom. All these were subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that you were not as good as the people in the other section.
So James Carr’s Freedom Train of 1969 was significant. Attorney General Tom C. Clark had organized a Freedom Train as “a campaign to sell America to Americans” to try and bolster the sense of shared ideology within the country. The train was integrated, but several Southern cities refused to allow blacks and whites to see the exhibits at the same time, and the Freedom Train skipped the planned visits. Carr’s song celebrates a new Freedom Train, free from segregation and discrimination. where “every man is gonna walk right proud with his head up high.”
So, here’s to trains, and may the Freedom Train keep on rollin’ down the track!
Here are 20 blues train songs for you to enjoy.
Trouble in Mind (1924)
In this old blues standard, things are so bad, the singer wants to end it all – he’s going to lay down his head on that old railroad iron, and let that 2.19 special pacify his mind. It never really gets to that point, happily, because, “sun’s gonna shine in my back yard some day.” First recorded in 1924, it’s been done by Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Snooks Eglin, Lightnin’ Hopkins and many more. I like this jaunty version by Brooks Williams from his Brooks Blues album of 2017.
Railroad Blues , Trixie Smith with Louis Armstrong (1925)
Trixie Smith, not related to Bessie Smith, paid her dues in vaudeville and minstrel shows, as well as performing as a dancer, a comedian, an actress, and a singer. Here she is backed by Louis Armstrong’s muted horn, as she is “Alabama bound” on the railroad.
The Mail Train Blues, Sippie Wallace (1926)
The Texas Nightingale recorded 40 songs for Okeh during the 1920s before going on to be a a church organist, singer, and choir director, and then eventually reviving her performing career in the 1960s. In Wallace’s 1926 Mail Train Blues she bemoans her sweet man leaving her and wants to go looking for him aboard the mail train.
Spike Driver Blues. Mississippi John Hurt (1928)
This and other songs recorded by Hurt in 1928 were not commercially success and he reverted to the farming life until being found in 1963 by Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins, and persuaded to perform and record again. John Hurt had a wonderful guitar picking style which is credited by many guitarists as their inspiration. Spike Driver Blues is a John Henry song where the “steel-driving man” dies as a result of his hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel.
Long Train Blues, Robert Wilkins, (1930)
Wilkins was a versatile blues performer from Mississipi who gave up playing the blues to become a gospel minister in 1936. An excellent guitarist, he came to light again in the 1960s and recorded some of his gospel blues. Long Train Blues, which he recorded in 1930 tells the tale of a lover who has run off on the train.
Too Too Train Blues, Big Bill Broonzy (1932)
There’s some nifty acoustic guitar work here by the hugely talented Bill Broonzy, with another “my baby done left me aboard the train” blues. Broonzy sustained his career successfully from the 1920s to the 1950s, performing both traditional numbers and his own compositions, recording more than 300 songs.
The Midnight Special, Leadbelly (1934)
Recorded in 1934 by Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter at Angola Prison for John and Alan Lomax, the song has been covered by a host of artists, notably John Fogerty’s Creedance Clearwater Revival. The Midnight Special is said to be the name of a train that left Houston at midnight, heading west, running past Sugarland prison farm, the train’s light becoming a symbol for freedom for the inmates. The song also references the injustice of black men being incarcerated for minor infractions.
Love in Vain, Robert Johnson (1937)
Famously covered by the Rolling Stones for their 1969 Let It Bleed album which featured some tasty electric slide guitar, Love in Vain is a Robert Johnson song recorded in his last studio session in 1937. Johnson’s guitar work is outstanding, as is his singing. The sense of loss is palpable, and you hear Johnson crying out his lover Willie Mae’s name near the end of the song.
This Train, Rosetta Tharpe (1939)
This old gospel song has been around since the 1920s and has been extensively recorded. Bruce Springsteen’s Land of Hope and Dreams takes This Train as its starting point but reworks the ideas of the original so that everybody can get aboard. Tharpe’s more original version has “everybody riding in Jesus’ name”; it’s a “clean train, which won’t take “jokers, tobacco chewers and no cigar smokers.” The song was a hit for Tharpe in the late ‘30s and again in the ‘50s. This live performance gives some sense of what an expressive and incredible performer Tharpe was, not to mention her impressive guitar chops. The 1939 version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
Lonesome Train, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee (1952)
Just a great train song, with Sonny Terry’s harp driving the train down the track in this instrumental track. There are a few “whoooos” hollered along the way by the duo, who had a 35-year partnership. A masterclass in harp playing. The song was recorded by Sonny Terry in 1952 along with the Night Owls.
Mystery Train, Junior Parker (1953)
Mississippi bluesman Parker’s 1953 hit inspired a number of later versions, notably Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s take in 1965. In Parker’s version the drums mimic the rattle of the train on the track and the tenor sax the wail of the whistle. Butterfield adds a nice bit of harmonica.
Southbound Train, Muddy Waters (1957)
This is another Big Bill Broonzy song from 1957, which Muddy Waters recorded on his tribute to Broonzy in 1960, Muddy Waters Sings “Big Bill.” Broonzy had mentored Waters when he came to Chicago. Waters version isn’t too far removed from Broonzy’s, both piano driven blues, but Water’s version features some nice harp from James Cotton. The song has the singer heading South to the lowlands to escape his faithless lover.
Freight Train, Elizabeth Cotton (1957)
The song actually is about dying and being laid to rest at the end of Chesnut Street, so “I can hear “old number 9 as she comes rolling by.” Remarkable really, when Cotton said she composed the song as a teenager (sometime 1906-1912). She recorded it in 1957 and it’s been covered by many artists, including Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Odetta. Cotton was a great guitar picker and this song has been a favourite for aspiring acoustic guitar players to learn. (Guitarist – check out Tommy Emmanuel’s lesson here (easy!!)
Freight Train Blues, Bob Dylan, 1962
Bob Dylan here echoes Elizabeth Cotton’s song in this 1962 recording from his debut album. Dylan tells a tongue-in-cheek but atmospheric story of poverty, rambling and the freight train. It’s typical early Dylan, all strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica.
Freedom Train, James Carr (1969)
A 1969 R&D hit for James Carr, Freedom Train reflects the Civil Rights movement of the sixties: “It’s time for all the people to take this freedom ride, Got to together and work for freedom side by side.” Born in Mississippi, Carr grew up singing in the church, but his R&D success led to his being called “the world’s greatest R&D singer.”
Hear My Train A-Coming, Jimi Hendrix (1971)
Hendix’s train song is typical Hendrix – overdriven, psychedelic guitar pulsing. It’s on his 1971 Rainbow Bridge album, but Hendrix performed the song in a BBC performance in 1967. He has also been recorded doing an acoustic version of the song on a 12-string guitar, giving it a Delta blues sound, Hendrix clearly familiar with the style of the acoustic blues masters of the past. Here’s some rare footage of Jimi Hendrix playing acoustic guitar.
Get Onboard, Eric Bibb (2008)
The title track of blues troubadour Eric Bibb’s 2008 album. Bibb, in his customary positive fashion, wants us to get on board the “love train.” There’s “room for everybody,” he sings as the band, including some nice harmonica, rattles us down the track.
Slow Train, Hans Theessink, 2012
Good times, bad times, tired and weary – Dutch guitarist and songwriter Hans Theessink has been singing the blues for a very long time and knows how to craft a blues song. This one is from his excellent 2012 Slow Train album, and features Theessink’s superb acoustic finger-picking and his rich bass-baritone voice.
When My Train Pulls In, Gary Clark Jr. (2013)
“Everywhere I go I keep seeing the same old thing & I, I can’t take it no more,” sings Clark, surely against the backdrop of racism in America. Hailing from Texas, the Grammy winning Clark is an outstanding guitarist and prolific live performer. This performance of the song which appears on his 2013 Blak and Blu album, showcases Clark’s guitar chops and his classy vocals.
Train to Nowhere, J J Cale (2014)
Eric Clapton recorded this previously unreleased J J Cale song on his tribute to Cale, The Breeze in 2014. The song features Mark Knopfler singing and playing guitar and is both unmistakably a J J Cale song and a train song. The lyrics look to be about that last train ride we all have to take and are a little bleak.
This Train, Joe Bonamassa (2016)
It’s full steam ahead for Joe’s train, in this case his baby who “comes down like a hammer” and “hurts him bad.” It’s all good stuff, with the usual Bonamassa guitar pyrotechnics. But Bonamassa has become a fine singer as well, which This Train amply demonstrates. The song is on his 2016 Blues of Desperation album, but there are some great live versions available too.