Songs For Trains

Trains are spiritual places for me. A sense of time slowing down while you move through the world at a standstill. I spend a good deal of my train rides listening to music whether I’m doing so while reading a book, gazing out the window, napping or writing a Freeform Portland blog post. So, I did some thinking on songs I strongly associate with trains. Many are literal “train songs,” but there are a number that use trains as a means of speaking to something less tangible.

Vashti Bunyan – “Train Song”

“Traveling north, traveling north to find you…”
Haunting. Best for routes that firstly, move northward, and secondly, are winding, remote and ideally immersed in fog. Don’t spend too much time getting attached to anyone you meet on these sorts of train rides.

Henry Thomas – “Bull Doze Blues”

“Just as sure as that train leaves out that Mobile yard…”
In this one, the train is a means of escape for the narrator. The phrase bull dozer can be traced back to 1876 when it was used to refer to racists terrorists in the South who would assault, harass and murder African Americans. The song suggests the reason for leaving their home by train is intimidation and harassment in their hometown in Alabama.

Allen Toussaint – “Last Train”

“The world is getting so much faster…”
This song is best heard on a train that’s recklessly fast, ramshackle and ideally ready to jump the rails. No ticket needed to ride this one.

The Magnetic Fields – “Fear of Trains”

“It was the wagon train that took away her country / it was the oil train that took away her past…”
This song sways my opinion on trains somewhat. Tracing a micro-history of the railroad’s impact on the main character as it forever alters the course of her and her family’s lives. Trains are painted as cruel harbingers of destruction. It’s important not to forget the things we lose in the name of “progress.”

Curtis Mayfield – “People Get Ready” (Live @ the Bitter End, NYC, 1971)

“I believe we’re gonna make it one day…”
Another instance of the “train as an escape” motif. This time, used as a metaphor for spiritual release. Curtis invites us to shed our biases, our hangups and our less pure selves.Sure, there’s heavy Christian overtones, but I choose to listen to it as a nondenominational invitation to a brighter, more peaceful future.

múm – “Asleep on a Train” / “Awake on a Train”

“crackle, doot doot, whirl, twinkle…”
Deceptively, most of “Asleep” is fairly lively and not quite a good fit for dozing off. Still, placed back to back, these songs make for an excellent window car soundtrack.

Lucina Williams – “Ramblin’ on My Mind”

“I’m gonna pack up my bags / gonna leave on the mornin’ train…”
Originally by Robert Johnson, Lucinda does the song more than justice with her rendition here. This is a song fit for catching a ride out of a dirty own town.

A Spotify playlist for sinking into headphones as train tracks rumble beneath: