Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Trains have figured prominently in the cinema since its inception—think of the Lumière brothers’ early film, Arrivée d’un train à Perrache (1896), or Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). If you think about it long enough and seriously enough, you’ll realize how many great films, encompassing all film genres, have had either a key sequence involving a train, or are actually set on a train—where does one begin? Many early Hollywood Westerns, Ella Cinders (1926), Laurel and Hardy’s Berth Marks (1929), Hitchock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North By Northwest (1959); Fritz Lang’s Western Union (1941); Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944); Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1969); Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; Murder on the Orient Express (1974); Silver Streak (1976); The Cassandra Crossing (1976); Terror Train (1980); Runaway Train (1985); Atomic Train (1999), and Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Of course, I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of the subject: one could go on and on about the fact that there’s scarcely been a bad film when set on a train. At the very least, films in which a train makes an appearance are always interesting. Try asking the question sometime at a party as a form of parlor game, and you’ll be surprised at how many titles people begin listing.

Is it any wonder, then, that Elvis, who worked as an usher in a movie theater, and who had memorized all of James Dean’s lines in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), would record “Mystery Train”? Songs about trains are as varied emotionally as the many associations with the train; as Raymond Durgnat observed, “…their whistles are cries of anger, joy, malevolence, jubilation, or, on the prairie, forlorn and lonely, or, in the blues, the consoling thought of escape” (Films and Feelings, p. 233). To which we could add, the thrill of mystery, as in Elvis’s interpretation of “Mystery Train”: I don’t know where this train his headed, but wherever it’s going, I’m staying on for the ride. Trains have had a distinguished place in popular music as well, as the following list attests. There are many lists of train songs available on the web, but here’s my playlist of choice:

A Few Train Songs:
Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues
Guy Clark – Texas, 1947
Tommy Dorsey – On the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra – Take the ‘A’ Train
Elvis – Mystery Train
Jimmy Forrest – Night Train
Steve Goodman – City of New Orleans
The Grateful Dead – Casey Jones
Tom T. Hall – The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore
Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five – Choo Choo Ch’Boogie
Gladys Knight & The Pips – Midnight Train to Georgia
Alison Krauss – Steel Rails
K. D. Lang – Ridin’ the Rails
John Mayall – Crawling Up A Hill
Jim and Jesse McReynolds – Bringin’ in the Georgia Mail
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra – Chattanooga Choo Choo (from Sun Valley Serenade, 1941)
Willie Nelson – Railroad Lady
Ozzy Osbourne – Crazy Train
Rank and File – The Conductor Wore Black
Jimmy Rogers – Same Train, Different Time
Doc Watson – Freight Train Boogie
Mary Wells – Soul Train
Hank Williams – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

1 comment:

Carlos Thomaz Albornoz said...

I've got two additional train songs for your list: Neil Young's 'Southern Pacific', from his 'Re-Ac-Tor' album, , where his band, in his 'country' days (1984 tour) made 'train' sounds... and, if you don't mind songs in portuguese, Villa Lobo's 'O Trenzinho do Caipira', (can be translated in english as 'hillbilly train'), wich was a synphonyc piece and received lyrics from Ferreira Gullar, a poet, then began to receive versions from most of our singers, becoming a standard. You will find many versions from this song on Youtube.