Train tracks

And there’s room for the forsaken if you’re there on time …

Back on Board,” Aztec Camera
Bullet Train,” The Lost Dogs
Down There by the Train,” Tom Waits
Downtown Train,” Everything But the Girl

Driver 8,” R.E.M.
The Engine Driver,” The Decemberists
Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash
Folsom Prison Blues,” Keb Mo
Freight Train to Nowhere,” Mark Heard
Ghost Train,” Counting Crows
Ghost Train,” Elvis Costello
High Speed Train,” R.E.M.
Hip Train,” Vigilantes of Love
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” Bob Dylan
Land of Hope and Dreams,” Bruce Springsteen
Last Train to Clarksville,” Cassandra Wilson
Long Train Runnin’,” The Doobie Brothers
Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gladys Knight and The Pips
Mystery Train,” Elvis Presley
“Night Train,” The Kingsmen
Nothing Like a Train,” Vigilantes of Love
On the Evening Train,” Johnny Cash
Peace Train,” 10,000 Maniacs
Peace Train,” Cat Stevens
People Get Ready,” Curtis Mayfield
People Get Ready,” Rod Stewart & Jeff Beck
Railroad Wings,” Patty Griffin
“Red Rail 9,” Twitchen Vibes
Saint Agnes and the Burning Train,” Sting
“Sounded Like a Train, Wasn’t a Train,” Castanets
Stop This Train,” John Mayer
Stranded at the Station,” Mark Heard
“This Train,” Janis Ian
This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” Elton John
The Train,” Lone Justice
Train in Vain,” Annie Lennox
Train in Vain,” The Clash
Train of Love,” Johnny Cash
Trains and Boats and Planes,” Dwight Yoakam
Zoo Station,” U2

It seems like for every song I have in which a car means sex, I have another song in which a train means death.

Trains seem eschatological in American music — death, but also redemption and an inexorable trajectory towards somewhere and something new.

That Janis Ian track is from a Sister Rosetta Tharpe tribute album, but since I couldn’t find a link for the cover version, here’s Sister Rosetta herself.

And here’s a big old hootenanny of that song with Mumford Sharpe & The Magnetic Sons:

“This Train” was first recorded in 1925 (by Wood’s Blind Jubilee Singers), but it was already an old song by then. It has influenced American music for more than a century, but something interesting has happened along the way. The original folk song is exclusive. “This train is a clean train,” one that “Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy.” It’s verses offered a list of the various types of scoundrels and sinners who would not be permitted to ride.

But nearly every rendition of the song suggests otherwise — words of warning sung as words of invitation. And the hundreds of songs it influenced have busily worked to sneak all those excluded sinners  — the gamblers, liars, thieves and big-shot ramblers — back on the train. You don’t need no ticket, you just get on board.


Why trains? I’m not sure, but it has to be trains. Take those songs above by Johnny Cash, Curtis Mayfield, Tom Waits, Gladys Knight or Cat Stevens and try to substitute a car, a bus or an airplane and they just wouldn’t work. Has to be a train. (Or maybe a boat.)

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  • RickRS

    noyatin already mention a favorite; Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie – Louis Jordan, and I like the Asleep at the Wheel cover of this one, too.

    Try “Hold That Train” – Lil’ Ed and the Blue Imperials
    For real, it’s a freebie at Amazon :
    Hard driving Chicago blues, with a blistering slide guitar.

  • kittehonmylap

    This Train- Indigo Girls (revised lyrics)
    City of New Orleans- Steve Goodman (this is the one I grew up listening to)

  • borealys

    Just a selection here, no time tonight to dig through the playlist for everything that might fit, but the upside is that I actually like and recommend every one of these songs — no embarrassing, how-did-that-even-get-on-my-iPod songs in here tonight.

    Midnight Train – Danny Michel
    This Map is Not to Scale – A.M. :
    Something On – The Tragically Hip
    Last Train Home – Lostprophets
    Train Overnight – The Tragically Hip
    Bullet Train Wreck – The Hundreds and Thousands
    Train From Kansas City – Neko Case
    One-Way Ticket – Oliver Black
    Gate 22 – Pascal Picard

    I find the different metaphorical use of a train as something unstoppable and unchangeable interesting, now that you’ve all got me thinking about it.

    In Midnight Train, the character is leaving his lover, hoping that she will arrive at the last minute to tell him not to board that train.  In Train From Kansas City, an old lover is coming to town, and though she doesn’t want to see him, she can’t stop the train from coming in. 

    One-Way Ticket, and Gate 22, are both on the popular theme of cutting ties and moving on, leaving loved ones behind.

    Bullet Train Wreck, like much of the album it appears on, has themes of a busy urban professional life and the toll that life can take — here, the bullet train carries the rider on his way so fast that he misses everything, bearing him to an inevitable crash.

    “Something On,” meanwhile, makes multiple references to having missed a train, with echoes of missed opportunity.

    This Map is Not to Scale is for those who like songs featuring subway trains.  Sampling of sounds from the Toronto Transit Commission.

  • P J Evans

    Trains and the Erie Canal. I’m wondering if it has something to do with being able to go somewhere else relatively cheaply and easily. (Pull up the stakes and leave town.)

  • Savannah

    Whoa, all this and no love for the Magnetic Fields?  They’ve got “Born On A Train” and “Fear of Trains,” both.

    I’ve been making promises I know I’ll never keep
    One of these days I’m gonna leave you in your sleep
    I’ll have to go when the whistle blows, the whistle knows my name
    Baby I was born on a train

  • Keulan

    Last Train to Clarksville – The Monkees

  • Amaryllis

    Did I miss it, or has no one mentioned The Orange Blossom Special?

     There are of course many many versions to choose from, but I’m rather partial to Johnny Cash, playing two harmonicas at once.

    Or Charlie McCoy making just as much train music with only one.

    I said Mr conductor man : I want to talk to you
    I want to ride your train : from here to Bugaloo

    Casey Jones – The Grateful Dead
    Down There by the Train – Tom Waits
    Downbound Train – Bruce Springsteen
    Folsom Prison – Johnny Cash
    Freight Train Blues – Trixie Smith
    The Hallelujah Line – The Washington Revels
    Jay Gould’s Daughter – Patrick Sky
    Midnight Special – LeadBelly
    Midnight Special 2002 – Mischief Brew
    Mr. Conductor Man – Big Bill Broonzy
    Mr. Conductor Man – Toshi Reagon
    Train, Train – Blackfoot
    Train Whistle Blues – Jimmie Rodgers
    Waving My Heart Goodbye – The Flatlanders

  • Hypocee

    Hardly in line with the train track tenor, but Last Train to Trancentral – KLF

    Quite firmly in line with it, but half political prose piece, cartoonist and filker Rob Balder’s A Song About a Train

    And to streeeeeetch it out unconscionably, because I did legitimately think of it immediately but mainly because they’re my very favorite band for some reasonable values of “favorite” and “band”, U Don’t Dans 2 Tekno Anymore – Alabama 3/A3:
    “Last train to Nashville, girl, you got onboard /
    Packed up your medicines, left without a word…”

    Some will recall that I’m atheist to the bone; nevertheless these guys are pretty much the only post-Cash I’d admit as gospel, and much of their stuff, including that, sometimes brings me to tears. Their joke fiction claims that they’re a charismatic, violently dominionist Branch Davidianesque fundie messiah and his minion – as well as hardcore Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionaries. I’m frankly afraid to find out what they actually take seriously. Converted, Peace In the Valley, Too Sick to Pray, Speed of the Sound of Loneliness. Yeah.

  • Hypocee

    U Don’t Dans 2 Tekno Anymore:
    “Last train to Nashville, girl, you got onboard,
    Packed up your medicines, left without a word…”

    Some will recall that I’m firmly atheist. It may be cultural piracy but I still dare to say that Alabama 3 are about the only post-Cash work I’d admit as gospel music.  Their comedic metafiction claims that they’re a charismatic, violently dominionist, Branch Davidian-style messiah-preacher and his minion – as well as Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionaries. I’m frankly loath to find out what, if anything, they actually mean. Regardless, much of their stuff, including UDD2TA, sometimes brings me to tears and I think of it and Slacktivist in close proximity. See also: Converted, Too Sick to Pray, Peace in the Valley, Speed of the Sound of Loneliness…

  • animus

    The Triffids – My Baby Thinks She’s a Train

  • Theo Axner

    Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
    Daly City Train – Rancid
    Day by Day – Generation X
    Down in the Tube Station at Midnight – the Jam
    Down in the Tube Station at Midnight – the Bad Shepherds
    Down There by the Train – Johnny Cash
    Downbound Train – Bruce Springsteen
    Drug Train – Social Distortion
    Farmer-Labor Train – Woody Guthrie
    Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
    In a Station – the Band
    It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Lot to Cry – Bob Dylan
    Jesus’ järnväg – Freddie Wadling (“Jesus’ Railroad”)
    King of Night Train – the Nomads
    Last Train to Clarksville – the Monkees
    Late for the Train – the Buzzcocks
    Locomotive – Rancid
    Locomotive Breath – the Squareheads (Jethro Tull cover)
    Mongrel Train – the Humpers
    Mystery Train Part II – Steve Earle
    On the Evening Train – Johnny Cash
    Railroad Boy – Bob Dylan & Joan Baez
    Ridin’ With the Driver – Motörhead
    Rock ‘n Roll Train – AC/DC
    Runaway Train – Soul Asylum
    Slow Train – Bob Dylan
    Subway Train – the New York Dolls
    Subway Train – Johnny Thunders
    This Train (Is Bound for Glory) – Sandy Denny
    Tied to the Tracks – Soul Asylum
    Train in Vain – the Clash
    The Train Kept a-Rollin’ – Johnny Burnette
    The Train Kept a-Rollin’ – Motörhead
    Train of Love – Neil Young
    Train Round the Bend – the Velvet Underground
    Train Song – Tom Waits
    Train, Train – the Count Bishops
    Train, Train – Billy Bragg
    Waiting for That Railroad – Joey Ramone
    Zoo Station – U2

  • “City of New Orleans” – John Denver

    “Gypsy Train” – Toto
    Does “the Gambler” – Kenny Rogers count? It takes place on a train, but it isn’t really about it.

  • Amaryllis

    And with all this talk about trains and death, I’m surprised at myself for leaving out the song variously known as”Mister McKinley/McKinley’s Gone/White House Blues.”

    Yonder comes the train, on down the line,
    Whistlin’ at every station “McKinley’s a-dyin,”
    From Buffalo to Washington.

    Forty-four boxcars all trimmed in lace,
    Take him to the baggage car so we don’t have to see his face
    From Buffalo to Washington

    Sung here by Bill Monroe, but that’s another one with multiple versions.

  • animus

    She Caught the Katy, about the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad.

  • Oo, let me madly recommend Viktor Pelevin’s novel _The Yellow Arrow_, in which everyone is on a train, and — but I don’t want to spoil it. Wonderful, eerie book. Short. 

  • Lots of train songs:

    Train  —  3 Doors Down

    Trains  —  Jill Sobule

    Two Trains  —  Little Feat

    Train  —  3 Doors Down

    Trains  —  Jill Sobule

    Two Trains  —  Little Feat

    Just Like This Train 
    —  Joni Mitchell

    Train in the Distance 
    —  Paul Simon

    It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry  —  Bob

    It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry  —  Chris


    There are parts of the train…

    Engines  —  Snow Patrol

    Railway  —  Dando Shaft

    Steel Rails  —  Alison Krauss

    Tied To The Tracks 
    —  Soul Asylum


    People on the train…

    Engine Driver  —  The Decemberists

    Hey Conductor  —  Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer

    Hey Porter  —  Johnny Cash

    Train Carried My Girl From Town  —  Kelly
    Joe Phelps

    (and that girl needed a)

    Ticket to Ride 
    —  The Beatles


    Kinds of trains

    Back Up Train  —  Al Green

    Shut Up Train  —  Little Big Town

    Blue Train  —  Johnny Cash

    Blue Train  —  Page & Plant

    Love Train  —  The O’Jays

    New Train  —  Paul Pena

    Train Of Love  —  Johnny Cash

    White Freightliner Blues 
    —  Steve Earle


    Times the train goes…

    Night Train  —  Steve Winwood

    On The Evening Train 
    —  Johnny Cash

    There’s A Train That Leaves Tonight  —  Mary


    Places the train goes…

    Central Station 
    —  Freedy Johnston

    This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore  —  Elton

    Canadian Railroad Trilogy 
    —  Gordon Lightfoot

    Last Train To Clarksville 
    —  The Monkees

    Last Train to London 
    —  Electric Light Orchestra

    Midnight Train to Georgia 
    —  Gladys Knight & the Pips

    Miss Tara MacAdam/The First Train To Kyle  —  Relativity

    Northern Bound Train 
    —  Pete Droge

    Southbound Train 
    —  Julie Gold

    Train To Birmingham 
    —  John Hiatt



    So many songs that titles get re-used:

    End Of The Line 
    —  Metallica (not the Travelling

    Last Train  —  Allen Toussaint (not the song by Travis)

    Runaway Train  —  Little Big Town (not the song by Soul Asylum)

    Train Song  —  Tom Waits (not the song by Eddie from Ohio)


    Trainwreck  —  Demi Lovato

    Trainwrecks  —  Weezer 

    Trainwrecks  —  Sara McLachlan – all three are completely
    different songs


    My favorite kinds of train songs are about specific
    train lines:

    Acela  —  Fountains
    Of Wayne

    California Zephyr (Album Version)  —  Jay
    Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard

    City Of New Orleans 
    —  Steve Goodman

    Dreamland Express 
    —  John Denver

    Kundalini Express 
    —  Love & Rockets

    Lafayette Railroad 
    —  Little Feat

    Marrakesh Express 
    —  Crosby, Stills & Nash

    Midnight Special  —  Creedence Clearwater Revival

    Orange Blossom Special (Live)  —  Johnny

    Rock Island Line 
    —  Johnny Cash

    Wabash Cannonball: Morning Dew/Wabash Cannonball/Father
    Kelly’s Reels  —  The Chieftains & Ricky Skaggs


    But my number one favorite song about trains (as well as farms
    prison mother trucks dead dogs like old Shep, Christmas, and thanks to David
    Alan Coe, getting drunk):


    Never Even Called Me By My Name
    by the late, great Steve Goodman




  • you’re right, there is definitely something eschatological about trains. just started watching Hell on Wheels, and it is all of these things.

    i still love soul asylum’s runaway train.