Steyn's Song of the Week
I love the Great American Train Song. It's a genre that has the sweep and size of the nation:
And, if you're a foreigner, you can learn a lot about the lie of the land from these numbers:
On the other hand:
It's a special category of song with its own full supporting cast - shoeshine boys, engineers and conductors:
Lots of social history in there, too:
As I mention in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, Johnny Mercer loved to put trains in songs â€“ 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 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 â€“ from "Take The 'A' Train" to "Downtown Train" â€“ 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:
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:
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:
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:
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 â€“ "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 songâ€“ a set-up and a hook, repeat as necessary â€“ and it's much more direct than Kern and Wodehouse:
And poor old Sheena seems to have nothing to do until her man gets home, at which point his job really starts:
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:
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 â€“ 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
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~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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~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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The SteynOnline Hit Parade
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