Riding the “Hiawatha” line (great name for a train line, by the way) got me thinking about great train travel songs. There is certainly no shortage of songs about locomotives you can add to your travel playlist, whether the song’s hero is riding overnight, waiting for his girl, slumming it, or driving it while high on cocaine. At the risk of sounding like one of those grown men with a Lionel train set*, here is a sample list of suggested railroad songs for your listening enjoyment.
Aerosmith – Train Kept A Rollin’
Before “Sweet Emotion,” “Love In An Elevator,” “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing,” and of course well before Steven Tyler’s judgeship on “American Idol,” Aerosmith (circa 1974 here) was simply a young blues and rock band cutting its teeth on the tour circuit, usually opening for bigger bands. (Imagine a time in popular music when a band could release two underwhelming albums, acquire a devoted following through constant touring, and still have the faith of its label before making it big – all without a song featured on an Apple commercial.) “Train Kept A Rollin'” was already a classic blues standard by the time Aerosmith gave it a try; the tune was a hit for Johnny Burnette in the ’50s, the Yardbirds in the ’60s, and a staple of Led Zeppelin shows. However, the Boys from Boston put arguably the best spin on it, with Joe Perry slowing down the locomotive-sounding riffs and Tyler giving the lyrics, already laden with innuendo (“with a heave, and a ho”) an added oomph. It was a style of music that the band would go on to perfect (and would define it).
Arlo Guthrie – City of New Orleans
A lot of people have probably heard the refrain to this song even if they don’t know its name. This folk tune about the Illinois Central Railroad could have been written for (or at least crassly appropriated for) a local morning show, a cereal commercial, or a Ronald Reagan campaign ad, but it was an earnest ditty penned by folk singer and Chicagoan Steve Goodman. His contemporary, Arlo Guthrie, would later make the song a hit, and country stars such as Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and John Denver would also put their particular stamp on it. In an interesting twist, the lyrics start from the rider’s viewpoint, before switching in the refrain to the eponymous train, apparently singing about itself.
Gladys Knight & the Pips – Midnight Train to Georgia
“I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine,” croons Gladys Knight about the man she loves, who couldn’t cut it in L.A. and is hightailing it back to his home (and girl, we presume) in Georgia. The man she sings about apparently “found out the hard way that dreams don’t always come true.” Ouch. His consolation prize is the steadfast woman waiting for him in the Peach State, shedding crocodile tears for his failed try at the big time but actually just happy he’s coming home.**
Roger Miller – King of the Road
For those of you ready to skip town with nothing but a few precious belongings tied in a kerchief around a broomstick, Roger Miller is here to glamorize the life of the train-hopping hobo. His clothes may be tattered, and he may smoke discarded cigar butts, but the man knows how to work the system. To you he’s a bum, but in that boxcar he’s a king. Here’s a lively television performance from 1965. Check out the audience reaction – you’d think Miller was the fifth Beatle.
The Monkees – Last Train to Clarksville
This is as simple as a train song can get – just get on the damned train, I’ll pick you up at the station, and I can’t hear anything on this phone because everybody’s talking so hurry up. It’s also unfailingly catchy, and an entertaining clip from the band’s TV show, through which the Monkees unwittingly invented music television.
Traveling Wilburys – End of the Line
That’s right, end of the line, folks. This is probably the best song from that late-80s “supergroup.” They’re letting us all know that “everything will work out fine,” and not to worry so much about the (final) destination but to enjoy the ride. In a sad coincidence, band member/legend Roy Orbison died of a heart attack shortly after contributing vocals to this tune. Consequently, the remaining Wilburys (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne) filmed the video as a tribute to Orbison. (Wilburymania would later storm the nation with “The Wilbury Twist”.)
There are, of course, dozens of famous train songs I’ve omitted, including James Brown’s “Night Train,” Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” the Beatles’ “One After 909,” and Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” (which is more of a NYC subway song that belongs on my NYC playlist). If you have any other suggestions, leave a comment.
*Does anyone remember the NBC Saturday morning live action show, “City Guys“? It was sort of an urban New York version of “Saved By The Bell” from the late ’90s/early ’00s. One of the teenage characters, Lionel, went by the nickname L-Train. Coincidence? Methinks not. Of course, now my blog will come up in Google searches for “City Guys.”
**Just one year after the night the lights went out in Georgia. Not sure whether one had anything to do with the other.