Mark Steyn

Steyn's Song of the Week

Morning Train (Nine To Five)

I love the Great American Train Song. It's a genre that has the sweep and size of the nation:

And you pull the throttle, whistle blows
A-huffin' an' a-puffin' and away she goes
All the way to Californiay
On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe!

And, if you're a foreigner, you can learn a lot about the lie of the land from these numbers:

You leave the Pennsylvania Station 'bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner
Nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham'n'eggs in Carolina…

On the other hand:

Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination Bangor, Maine…

It's a special category of song with its own full supporting cast - shoeshine boys, engineers and conductors:

I'm Alabammy Bound
There'll be no heebie-jeebies hangin' round
Just gave the meanest ticket-man on earth
All I'm worth
To put my tootsies in an upper berth…

Lots of social history in there, too:

For a little silver quarter
We can have the Pullman porter
Turn the lights down low
Off we're gonna shuffle
Shuffle Off To Buffalo...

As I mention in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, Johnny Mercer loved to put trains in songs – the clicketty-clack echoing back the "Blues In The Night", and you'll see Laura on a train that is passing through. And, most deft of all, the "k" sounds in "I Thought About You", onomatopoeically evoking that clicketty-clack of rushing through the night and the glimpse of distant lights through the shade:

I peeped through the crack
And looked at the track
The one going back to you
And what did I do?
I Thought About You...

I even like Gordon Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy", his paean to Canadian Pacific, and also Felix Leclerc's marvelous "Train du nord", a slice of authentic Quebeciana which CĂ©line Dion sings occasionally, about le p'tit train from Montreal up to St Jerome and Mont Laurier.

But while there are plenty of cross-country train songs and even a few city ones – from "Take The 'A' Train" to "Downtown Train" – it's thin pickings when it comes to suburban mass transit. There are two commuter songs I happen to be fond of. One is "The Enchanted Train", a sweetly goofy tribute to the Long Island Rail Road written for a flop show in 1924 by Jerome Kern and P G Wodehouse. It's sung from the perspective of the little woman waiting at the cottage door:

Dear magic train
Bringing you home again…

Kern did all the usual chugging effects but the tune is oddly Elgarian, which gives the little suburban puffer a strange dignity as it wheezes along the track:

It's quite a humble train, you know
And some folks grumble that it's slow
It stops to ponder now and then
The air inside needs oxygen…

Wodehouse, who lived much of his life at Remsenburg, had courted his wife on the Long Island Rail Road and he provided a lyrical recitation of the train's stops so blissful that, alas, when I eventually took my first ride out to Long Island, made the real thing pale by comparison. Still, even in its present state, you can see what the waiting wife in the honeysuckled cottage is getting at:

Down at the gate
I shall listen and wait
Oh how excited I'll be
And how I'll cheer it
Each night when I hear it
Bringing you home to me…

And that was pretty much the last train song from that particular point of view for six decades. By the way, if you're wondering why I'm writing about train songs, it's a convoluted story: This coming weekend, it's St Andrew's Day - Scotland's national holiday. So I thought it'd be fun to have a Scots Song of the Week. But we did "Loch Lomond" at the time of the referendum a few months back, so I went looking elsewhere and thought of one of my favorite Scots lassies, Sheena Easton, and her biggest hit - a Number One record in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand 33 years ago that is, in essence, a popped up version of Kern and Wodehouse:

My baby takes the Morning Train
He works from nine till five and then
He takes another home again
To find me waiting for him…

Wodehouse rhymes "train" with "again", which in America is a slightly obsolescent rhyme - "agayne" rather than "agenn". By the time Gene Kelly was "Singin' In The Rain", he was happy agenn. But Florrie Palmer's rhyme could go either way – "agayne" with "train" or "agenn" with "then". On the record, Sheena Easton goes with the latter, which somehow suits the honking-sax chugga-chugga clapalong of Christopher Neil's production. It's a conventional rock-era pop song– a set-up and a hook, repeat as necessary – and it's much more direct than Kern and Wodehouse:

I wake up ev'ry morning
Stumble out of bed
Stretching and a-yawning, another day ahead…

And poor old Sheena seems to have nothing to do until her man gets home, at which point his job really starts:

When he steps off the train
Amazingly full of fight
Work all day
To earn his pay
So we can play all ni-ight…

Which makes her considerably more single-minded than Wodehouse's Long Island homebody.

As for the composer and lyricist, I've no real idea who Florrie Palmer is. Which is strange to me. I've met dozens of British songwriters over the years, which means that even when I don't know someone directly, I usually know a friend thereof, or a friend of a friend. But in this case not only do I not know a thing about Florrie Palmer, I've never met anyone who knows a thing about her, either. And then, just as I was mulling over this piece, by some strange serendipity I discovered that the enigmatic Ms Palmer has just published a novel about her time in the music business, Never Final Till It's Vinyl. So now I have to buy it if only, at long last, to find out something about the songwriter who gave us "Morning Train". But Christopher Neil made a shrewd choice in picking this and "Modern Girl" to launch Sheena Easton's career. I used to date a girl who was the spitting image of Miss Easton, which was occasionally useful when it came to getting a good table at fashionable restaurants. So I always had a soft spot for this number. As I recall, there were grumbles that its tone was too pre-feminist, but it put Sheena at Number One in May 1981 because, in part, you're having such fun singing along you're not paying much attention to what it is you're actually bellowing out.

That's what made it such a great choice for the 2004 movie Eurotrip, the teen comedy that manages to be a more pertinent Euro-analysis than anything you find in The Guardian . As you'll recall, the two American high school lads land in London and accidentally wander into a pub full of Manchester United fans. Surrounded by menacing yobs eager to nut them, Scotty and Coop claim to be from the Man. U. Fan Club of Ohio. When Vinnie Jones challenges them to sing the club song, Scotty thinks for a moment and then tries a little Sheena Easton:

My baby takes the Morning Train
He works from nine to five and then
He takes another home again…

And amazingly he's right! A deeply touched Vinnie embraces his Ohio brethren, and pretty soon the whole pub's singing along, and Scott and Coop are in the thick of it as their new pals are affectionately shattering beer glasses over their heads and going "F--king great, f--king f--kers!" and other traditional English expressions of undying friendship.

Is Sheena Easton really the official Man Utd song? Who cares? It's a great moment – and the P G Wodehouse number wouldn't work half so well. And, as a general rule, the worst train song is better than the best soccer song. The heyday of the genre was mid-19th to mid-20th century, from "I've Been Working On The Railroad" to "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" - and gas prices are going to have to go a lot higher than three-bucks-whatever a gallon to revive this category. I don't rule out a Joe Biden executive order forcing everyone back on to the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe, but, until then, Florrie Palmer's "Morning Train" looks pretty much the end of the line.

~If you enjoy Steyn's Song of the Week each week, you may like to know that some of Mark's favorite Song of the Week songs - including Song of the Week #31, Song of the Week #32, Song of the Week #172, Song of the Week #195, Song of the Week #207, Song of the Week #220 and Song of the Week #221 - can be heard on his new album Goldfinger, available from the Steyn store either on CD or via digital download or as part of a limited-edition double-bill with Mark's new book.

November 24, 2014


This Ole House

Sixty years ago - in November 1954 - Rosemary Clooney had the Number One record in both America and Britain. Three decades later, it was a UK Number One all over again - providing a late-career windfall for a cowboy actor turned radio evangelist...

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Roses Of Picardy

As we approach the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, here's one of Mark's favorite songs from the Great War...

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It's the End of the World as We Know It

After "Cat Scratch Fever", Mister Squaresville goes in search of other rockers to cover

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In this week before Halloween, how about a Song of the Week for the witching hour? I've always loved songs that use magic as an image of romantic seduction and intoxication. Cole Porter got in on it early in "You Do Something To Me" (1928):

Let me live 'neath your spell
Do do That voodoo
That you do So well…

Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer extended the thought in 1944:

That Old Black Magic has me in its spell...

But it was Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh who wrapped up the subject once and for all...

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The Quality of Mercer

A musical moment from The [Un]documented Mark Steyn

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Night And Day

What's the connection between the Muslim call to prayer and Fred Astaire?

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(You'd Be So) Easy To Love

Eighty years ago this month Cole Porter wrote one of the loveliest ballads in the American Songbook:

You'd be so Easy To Love
So easy to idolize, all others above...

A top-rank Porter standard, recorded by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Charlie Parker, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Julie London, Stephane Grappelli, Sammy Davis Jr, Doris Day, and on and on and on, forever. Yet the guy it was written for didn't care for it. William Gaxton was the leading man in Porter's new Broadway show Anything Goes, and eight decades ago he and the rest of the cast were getting ready to open in Boston at the end of the month...

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The Party's Over/Just In Time

It's twenty years since Jule Styne died - back in September 1994. By then he was the last of the Broadway giants, the composer of Funny Girl, Peter Pan and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and perhaps the greatest of all American musicals Gypsy; the prodigious hitmaker of "Time After Time" and "People" and "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend"; the guy who'd supplied all those sidewalk Santas and shopping malls with "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" I write about him in Mark Steyn's American ...

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Loch Lomond

Continuing our post-referendum Scottish theme this weekend, here's a song whose best-known lines figured in a lot of glib commentary in recent weeks - "Will Scotland take the high road, etc?" This essay is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the Steyn store: O you'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road And I'll be in Scotland afore ye... The best known Scottish song of all time is the one about ...

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Can't Take My Eyes Off You/The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore

Mark celebrates the late Bob Crewe and two Sixties classics

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God Bless America

The following essay is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season: In the weeks after September 11th, several commentators wanted to know why everyone was singing "God Bless America" rather than the national anthem. The song was everywhere in those early days, and various musicologists were called upon to speculate learnedly on why this song had caught the public mood: Perhaps "The Star-Spangled Banner" requires too great a range, perhaps its complex use of melismas demands a professional ...

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Over The Rainbow

Last week we marked the 75th anniversary of The Wizard Of Oz, but without getting to the film's big song. It's about five minutes in, when we're still in drab, dusty, cheerless, broken-down black-&-white Kansas. Dorothy has tried to tell her folks about an unpleasant incident involving Miss Gulch, but Aunt Em advises her to "stop imagining things" and "find yourself a place where you won't get into any trouble". Dorothy wanders off, taking the injunction seriously. "Do you think there is such a ...

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Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead

This month marks the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest and most enduring film musicals ever made, and one of the few to match the dramatic ambition of the best Broadway shows. The Wizard Of Oz gave us a standard song that won the Oscar that year and was potent enough to provide Eva Cassidy with a posthumous hit in the 21st century. We'll get to that next week, but for this week's Song of the Week here's one of my personal favorites from a truly marvelous score: Ding-Dong! The Witch Is ...

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They Didn't Believe Me

When this weekly feature began eight and a half years ago, our Song of the Week Number One was "San Francisco", to mark the centenary of the 1906 earthquake. But, if I'd been thinking about a Number One song in more profound terms, our Number One song would have been the song we're finally getting round to almost a decade later - because this week's song was really the Number One song for an entire school of songs. As Mel Tormé put it, when Jerome Kern composed this melody, he "invented the popular song". If your idea of a popular song is "Call Me Maybe" or "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" or "The Tennesee Waltz", Tormé's claim is a bit of a stretch. But it's not unreasonable to claim that with this tune Kern invented what we now call the American Songbook - standards that endure across the decades and can be sung and played in almost any style. It is, thus, the Number One Song, the first and most influential entry in that American Songbook...

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A Greasepaint Medley

Three hit songs from one flop Sixties musical

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The Boy Next Door part two

To mark the centenary of composer Hugh Martin, here's the second part of Mark's two-part audio tribute to the man who gave the world "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"...

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I'll Never Smile Again/Put Your Dreams Away

As I mentioned yesterday, we're having a mini-Canadian festival on this long weekend for Simcoe Day and whatnot. This month marks the centenary of one of my favorite Canadian songwriters, albeit one who retired far too early, and we're celebrating with her two biggest hits. The section on "I'll Never Smile Again" is adapted from my book A Song For The Season: "I'll Never Smile Again/Until I smile at you..."

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(I'm In Love With) A Wonderful Guy

A few weeks back, apropos "June Is Bustin' Out All Over", I mentioned that we hadn't done a lot of "month" songs in the years we've been running this feature. Some months - mostly spring ("April Showers", "April In Paris") and fall ("September Song", "September In The Rain") - seem to lend themselves to musicalization. If "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" is about as big a hit title as the sixth month of the year has ever produced, the eighth (which looms this very week) can't even manage a title ...

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Cinderella Rockefella

What with all the Jew-hate around on the streets of Europe in recent days, I thought it would be nice to have a big Europop hit from that fleeting cultural moment when the Continentals regarded Israel not merely as a normal sovereign state but in fact a rather cool and enviable one...

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Fly Me To The Moon

I wouldn't want June to recede too far into the rear mirror without noting that it marked the 50th anniversary of a great and historic recording that, before the Sixties were out, burst the bounds of the planet. In June 1964, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie were in the studio making their second album together, It Might As Well Be Swing. The arranger was Quincy Jones, and his work for the set included a chart Frank kept in the act all the way to his very last concert...

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How About You?

Dominion Day looms - on Tuesday. We always like to have a Canadian song for the national holiday, and what could be more Canadian than...

I like New York in June
How About You?

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Put On A Happy Face

Some musical advice from Mark's graduation season

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Nessun dorma

The all-time great World Cup song

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Georgia On My Mind

Steyn celebrates the song Ray Charles used to hum in the back of his car on the way to the gig - until one day his driver told him to record it.

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June Is Bustin' Out All Over

Well, it's the beginning of June and that means June is bustin' out all over! Except that June doesn't really bust, does it..?

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The Battle Hymn of the Republic

This essay is adapted from Mark's book A Song For The Season:

Memorial Day in America – or, if you're a real old-timer, Decoration Day, a day for decorating the graves of the Civil War dead. The songs many of those soldiers marched to are still known today – "The Yellow Rose Of Texas", "When Johnny Comes Marching Home", "Dixie". But this one belongs in a category all its own...

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Yesterday When I Was Young/She

Ninety years ago this Thursday a baby boy was born in Paris ...well, that was the first unexpected plot twist. He was supposed to be born in America...

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Four decades ago, "Waterloo" hit Number One in the British charts, and the four Swedes never looked back, except to check whether their hot pants had split...

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My Lady Nicotine

Mark explores the art of the cigarette song

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Tea For Two

One of the biggest pop standards of the 20th century celebrates its 90th birthday this month. Exactly nine decades ago - April 21st 1924 - a new musical comedy opened in Chicago on its pre-Broadway tour. The plot was the usual fluff - three couples in Atlantic City, complications ensue, etc. It should have been a breeze, but it wasn't going well...

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Rock Around The Clock

Six decades ago - April 12th 1954 - a chubby-faced kiss-curled man pushing 30 with a backing group named after a theory published in Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae in 1705 went into the recording studio at the Pythian Temple on West 70th Street in New York and sang a song written by a man born in the 19th century...

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Luck Be A Lady

A musical postscript to our Marlon Brando movie night

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Blue Moon

A Rodgers & Hart classic - after three false starts...

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Till There Was You

The 50th anniversary of the Beatles' only showtune

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On The Good Ship Lollipop/Animal Crackers In My Soup

Shirley Temple - singer, dancer, actress, and rock'n'roller

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Angel Eyes

Mark celebrates a classic saloon song

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Almost Like Being In Love

A song for Groundhog Day?

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The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Pete Seeger and the "folk song" he stole

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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Number One in January 1934 ...and January 1959

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A Marshmallow World

Mark tells the story behind "his" Christmas song, and presents an audio special celebrating the man who wrote it...

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The Boy Next Door

Hugh Martin, composer, lyricist, vocal arranger, pianist, singer, actor and the man who gave the world the great seasonal gift of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", was born one hundred years ago this week...

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As the years go by I grow less and less interested in grassy knolls and all the rest, but I am struck by one genuine, non-conspiracy-theorist feature of November 22nd 1963...

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All Or Nothing At All

Mark celebrates the very first entry in the Sinatra Songbook - and one that stayed with him from big bands to disco

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Ain't That A Kick - Sammy Cahn All The Way

(Audio)To mark the centenary of one of the most successful songwriters of all time, Steyn presents a brand new Song of the Week audio edition, celebrating the man who wrote "Come Fly With Me", "Teach Me Tonight", "The Tender Trap", "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!", "All The Way", "Call Me Irresponsible", "My Kind Of Town (Chicago Is)", and many more.

It's over two hours of great music and stories, including special material from the SteynOnline archives.

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Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?

For Bastille Day it seemed appropriate to have a French number for our Song of the Week. Unfortunately, this one's British, but it does have an accordion...

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An Esther Williams Medley

To mark the passing of MGM's million-dollar mermaid: "On A Slow Boat To China", and "Baby, It's Cold Outside".

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Light My Fire

How a psychedelic anthem from the summer of love became an easy-listening blockbuster

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What A Diff'rence A Day Made

A day late for Cinco de Mayo, here's Steyn's Song of the Week: the most successful composition by Mexico's first successful female composer.

~and don't forget, if you like Mark's Song of the Week essays, some of his most requested are collected in his book A Song For The Season - including many songs for national days, from "America The Beautiful" to "Waltzing Matilda". You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.

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The Sheik of Araby

April 29th apparently marks the anniversary of the launch of the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the year 711. So I thought it would be fun to have a suitably Islamo-dominant number for our Song of the Week.

~and don't forget, some of Mark's most popular Song of the Week essays are collected in his book A Song For The Season. You can order your personally autographed copy exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore.

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Easter Parade

An audio special in which Mark traces the story of the only Easter standard in the American songbook

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