published: 17 /
In her 'Raging Pages' book column Lisa Torem examines prolific Welsh author Spencer Vignes new book 'The Train Kept A-Rollin’, How The Train Song Changed The Face of Popular Music', which brings to life the way train travel has influenced songwriters and performers through multiple eras
What do Arlo Guthrie, Gladys Knight, Johnny Cash and Ray Davies have in common? Much of their success centered on songs about trains. Cash even improvised the chug-chug of the locomotive wheels with a folded bill tucked behind his steel strings, and, of course, entertained countless prisoners with rhythmic strums.
Knight’s hit, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ referenced another major American hub originally, but perhaps the song would have moved her audience regardless. It would have been a powerhouse even if it had been named after Detroit, Michigan or Madison, Wisconsin.
Davies had a fascination with the one-off Waterloo Station, which would feature prominently in one of The Kinks’ most beloved numbers. In exchange for a cold beer, Guthrie invited an ambitious songwriter to perform his original, ‘City of New Orleans.’ That smart move translated into major residuals and a lot of sing-a-longs.
Welsh author Spencer Vignes allocates time for some extraordinary passages about the last steam vehicle in London, and how the locals gathered to bid it farewell, as it took its final breath.
To what extent did train travel influence popular culture? In ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin’-How The Train Song Changed The Face of Popular Music, author Spencer Vignes chronicles the early splendor of train travel across the UK and the US with painstaking detail and perception.
Of course, it was obligatory to pay tribute to Woodie Guthrie, Lonnie Donegan and Robert Johnson, but Vignes goes much further, citing the stunning songs of Glasgow’s Gerry Rafferty and Doobie Brother Tom Johnston, whose instrumental jam morphed into ‘Long Train Runnin’.
Says Johnston, “…it had this train quality, that chigga-chugga sound as it comes down the track.” Vignes discusses the fact that the musician’s home town, Visalia, was once over run by train robbers.
The book wouldn’t be complete without the addition of Jethro Tull ballad, ‘Locomotive Breath, loved as much for Ian Anderson’s breathy flute solo as for the moving use of metaphor.
The book focuses on train-related past times as much as music. For example, there is the poignant question about “trainspotters”. “Is it just us who are like this, the British I mean?” asks broadcaster Michael Palin. Rod Stewart’s early fondness for model trains is also duly noted. But Vignes does not simply dwell on the life of the hobbyist. He reminisces about what happened after the train was replaced by more efficient modes of transportation. How did that affect the songwriter? The audience? Other than Peter, Paul and Mary’s touching ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’ could flying machines spike creativity in that same, fluid manner?
The book features a beautiful, earth-tone cover and historical photos, including a divine black and white of Jimmy Rodgers, “the Singing Brakeman, helpful hobos in Bakersfield, California and many shots of the aforementioned acts.
There is also a short but sweet section in which major industry players provide endearing pull quotes, during focused interviews with Vignes; a highly detailed index and a compilation of songs that every serious train historian should acknowledge.
This is a book that straddles the emotions. It will make the reader feel wistful, patriotic, nostalgic and delighted. That said, “The Train Kept A-Rollin’ is a terrific read which gets to the very heart of a nearly forgotten mode of transportation and life style that altered the everyday person immeasurably.