Blues music belongs to the railroad; the swaying of the train and the clickety-clack of the rails. Jazz composer , W.C. Handy (1873-1958), claims to have discovered the blues while waiting at a railway station in Tutwiler, Mississippi. He noted that while waiting, A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept...The effect was unforgettable. (1) It is no coincidence that this claim originated within such close proximity to the rails. The blues and trains had an auspicious union right from the beginning of this century, and, in some brooding and elementary way, the strong link forged between them has never really been broken.
The period 1890-1939 saw the mass migration of Afro-Americans from the south to the industrial north-the most notable reason being a newly found freedom from slavery and available employment in centres such as Chicago and Detroit. The railroad network was sufficiently developed at this time that small hamlets could easily find connecting routes to larger metropolitan areas. The development of the blues paralleled mass migration from rural to urban centres, as well as movement within the south itself. As Afro-Americans migrated, their music migrated with them. Because the blues are about the lives and surroundings of the people, the songs often reflect this movement, and offer up an image of migration and struggle for freedom and success, with the train being one of the principle players.
Musicologists have placed the birth of the blues around 1890. Basically, a blues is simply a song that alternates brief vocal and instrumental phrases, usually forming a stanza of three such combinations, in which the first and second lines repeat themselves and the third acts as a punch line. This simple musical form quickly spread throughout the American south and, by the mid-1920s, it was the prominent music of Afro-Americans of both sexes.
During slavery the attraction to the railroad was both real and symbolic. Southern railroads did not hesitate to make extensive use of slaves during the Civil War. In some instances railroads themselves owned slaves. The Southern Carolina Railroad alone owned ninety slaves in 1859, before the War began.(2) Many work songs were sung to the rhythm of the swinging hammer as spikes were driven into the rails. So too, trains passing by plantation fields represented to the slaves toiling in them a freedom for which they were longing, although few were willing to escape or chance a ride to an ambiguous freedom. So strong was the symbolism of the train that white sympathizers who helped to organize escape routes north of the Ohio River and often into Canada, were given the name underground railroad, where conductors were met at stations.
It would seem, then, that the blues developed as the popular race music of the time, just as the railroads were beginning to figure prominently in the American landscape. Little by little the train steered away from being just a symbol to becoming a reality for those seeking freedom in northern industrial centres and Canada. With the abolition of slavery, the railroad provided the means for those with the desire to escape the oppression of the American south.
Bluesmen, as the male singers came to be called, were often helped by liberal brakemen and conductors, who saw nothing wrong with giving a free ride in exchange for a little entertainment. It was common for musicians to jump on and off freight trains to visit neighbouring towns and farms. Later, they would expand their comfort zone to other states and urban centres, joining the army of homeless wanderers drifting across the country. Whenever bluesmen were denied the goodwill of railroaders, they adventurously found other means to travel for free, such as an empty boxcar, riding the blind end of a railcar, or cleverly placing a piece of wood over the axles of a railcar and riding the axles.
The accompanying musical programme to Track Records: Trains and Contemporary Photography begins with one such hobo, Henry Thomas, a.k.a. Ragtime Texas (Track 1). His Railroadin Some is a classic tribute to riding the rails. It is a narrative with Thomas itemizing the towns through which he passes from Fort Worth, Texas to Chicago. Of this song, William Barlow writes:
Nowhere in the early rural blues recorded in the 1920s is there a more vivid and intense recollection of railroading. The cadences of the song depict the restless lifestyle of the vagabonds who rode the rails and their boundless enthusiasm for the mobility it gave them.(3)
The variety in which the theme of the railroad or train is placed within each blues song is as numerous as the songs themselves. These themes come to light when examining some of the lyrics of pre-war blues. For example, many bluesmen sang of the fear of hoboing the train and the consequences it could bring. King Solomon Hill and Big Bill Broonzy sang of begging the engineer to let them on board, only to be let down with his negative reply:
Aaa aah-I wanna ride your train,
I said, Looka here engineer, can I ride your train?
He said, Looka here you oughta know this train aint mine an you
askin me in vain. (Track 2)
The use of the train as a means of escape, or as liberator, is a common theme in pre-war blues. Quite often the departure was not from the poor working conditions of the American south but rather from the long arm of the law, or a love affair gone astray. The Afro-American frequently found himself seeking shelter in one of the ramshackle settlements that developed in urban railyards. These hobo jungles offered refuge, camaraderie and a means of protection from the railroad officials and police.
Im a broken-hearted bachelor, travellin through this wide world alone (x2)
Its the railroad for my pillow, this jungle for my happy home. (Track 5)
Some bluesmen who followed the tracks in search of work found temporary employment with the railroad companies as porters, firemen, switchmen or brakemen. A man who joined up in Arkansas might eventually find himself in Georgia, Louisiana or Ohio. He might then shift from one railroad line to another to work his way back home. (Track 6) Often those bluesmen working as firemen on certain rail lines actually quilled or tuned the train whistle to send out a rudimentary blues moan. Musicians often competed with their peers to authenticate the sounds and the power of a train to make up some of the most surreal and mournful blues. (Tracks 13, 14 & 15)
In many blues songs the train appears to take on its own persona, with human characteristics. Sometimes it could be seen as both a boon to a democratic man and as an object of suspicion. With its noise and clamour, moans and groans, it could be seen as a distrustful object of industry. For example:
That Flying Crow whistle sounds so lonesome and sad (x2)
Lord it broke my heart, and took the last woman I had. (Track 7)
In these songs the train becomes something with which the bluesman must contend. It becomes a controlling metaphor for adultery, complexity, and power:
If I had the strength I would set this train off the tracks (x2)
Til she make me a promise she bring my baby back. (Track 8)
The train was sometimes so life-like that the blues singer saw it as an object to be reckoned with, like a prize fighter of eruptive force and monumentality:
Big Four, Big Four, why are you so mean? (x2)
Why you the meanest ol train that I ever seen. (Track 9)
Female blues singers like Bessie Smith and Georgia White also shared their train experiences in song. Unlike the symbol of freedom the rails offered the men, the logistics of hopping a freight train to ride were not available to women. Neither did the economic conditions provide job opportunities for them in the North, nor even the price of a ticket. Thus, to them, the train tends to be characterized as friend or foe, depending on whether a lover is arriving or leaving. Facing abandonment, the train becomes foe; it only becomes a friend on the rare occasion when the lover is coming back. (Tracks 10 & 11) Their songs oscillate between melancholy and the anticipation of romance.
For those suffering in southern prisons and for whom railroad travel was an impossibility, the free movement of the train took on a deeper symbolism. Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly, wrote his famous Midnight Special while in a Texas penitentiary. Each night a train left Houston heading for the west coast. It went by the penitentiary around midnight, shining its lights over the prison buildings. The inmates believed that any person illuminated by those lights in passing would be the next one released:
Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,
Let the Midnight Special shine her ever lovin light on me. (Track 12)
The railroad was close to the hearts and imaginations of the men and woman who sang the blues. Their music is a testimony to the lightning express, tales of valour and mischance, sorrowful partings and burgeoning romances. They are not only songs of sentiment or nostalgia, but they also provide us with a reflection on the social and cultural experiences of the Afro-American early in this century. They address hard questions of cultural identity, historical memory, migration and race. It would seem then, that every manner of human encounter touches on the blues, leaving image tracks which continue to be strongly felt.
Tom Fleming 1997
1. W.C. Handy, W.C. Handy: Father of the Blues, (new York: The Macmillan Company, 1941), p. 78.
2. George H. Douglas, All Aboard!, (New York: Marlowe & Company, 1995), p. 112.
3. William Barlow, Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), p. 64.
1. Henry Thomas - Railroadin Some, 1927 3:14
2. King Solomon Hill - The Dead Gone Train, 1931 3:15
3. Big Bill Broonzy - Mr. Conductor Blues, 1932 2:55
4. Sleepy John Estes - Hobo Jungle Blues, August 3, 1937 2:54
5. Son Bonds - Old Bachelor Blues, April, 1938 2:36
6. Sylvester Weaver - Railroad Porter Blues, Nov. 27, 1927 2:47
7. Washboard Sam - Flying Crow Blues, June 26, 1941 2:45
8. Son House - Depot Blues, 1942 2:53
9. Leroy Carr - Big Four Blues, Feb. 25, 1935 2:57
10. Bessie Smith - Dixie Flyer Blues, May 15, 1935 3:07
11. Georgia White - Panama Limited, April 18, 1940 2:46
12. Leadbelly - Midnight Special, 1941 2:45
13. Billiken Johnson and Neal Roberts - Frisco Blues, 1928 3:19
14. Freeman Stowers - Railroad Blues, 1929 3:04
15. Deford Bailey - Pan-American Blues, April 18, 1927 2:52