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 Céline 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.