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.)

"https://uploads.disquscdn.c...^^^ What she said."

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LBCF, No. 190: ‘Something happens’
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LBCF, No. 190: ‘Something happens’

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  • Carstonio

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

    What about a train meaning sex? George Carlin once pointed out the train/tunnel metaphor in the old Tiparillo commercials. Naturally this colored my interpretation of Roseanne Cash’s “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train.”

    I was somewhat surprised when  Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck remade “People Get Ready,” because neither performer was known for strong religious beliefs, and the lyrics are straight out of the evangelical tradition here. They did an excellent job with their version.

  • LoneWolf343

    The old song “Black Betty” was apparently about a train.

  • hidden_urchin

    ” Crash at Crush” by Brian Burns. Train = death. Literally.

  • quinnthebrain

    The Train Song, by Eddie from Ohio

  • “Fast Train” by Solomon Burke ( and “Railroad Man” by Eels ( are great choices too.

  • As someone who spends a lot of time sitting on and thinking about trains (and occasionally <a href=";.writing things about the process). this whole idea of trains as a metaphor for death just gobsmacked me.

    This completely changes the nature of two songs about trains for me:

    The legendary Buddy Guy’s “Midnight Train

    There ain’t no midnight train
    There ain’t no midnight train
    There ain’t no midnight train
    Comin’ down the line

    So I stood for forty minutes
    It was raining and it was cold
    When the express rolled down the track
    I did not care where it was gonna go

    Then there’s Mike Doughty’s “Thank You, Lord, for Sending Me the F Train

    here this train speeds underground
    this train speeds under the river

    and i will drift back to the slope
    some face unlit, there, stuck into the incline
    where i will sleep off all the noise
    the soot accumulated, all my trials

    i thank you
    lord almighty up above
    just for sending out the F train to me


    And now, even though I have way too much to do today, I want to go write about trains.

  • rm
  • wanderingoutlaw

    City of New Orleans – Willie Nelson
    Downbound Train – Bruce Springsteen
    Eddie Rode the Orphan Train – Jim Roll
    Freight Train – Kasey Chambers
    Freight Train Blues – Bob Dylan
    Hellbound Party Train – Hick’ry Hawkins & Sidemeat
    Little Black Train – Woody Guthrie
    Locomotive Breath – Jethro Tull
    Memphis Train Blues – R.E.M.
    Mule Train – Count Prince Miller
    Mule Train – Tennessee Ernie Ford
    Peace Train – Gandalf Murphy And The Slambovian Circus Of Dreams
    Railroad Bill – Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
    Railroad Bill – Roger McGuinn
    Railroad Lady – Willie Nelson
    Rider on an Orphan Train – Dry Branch Fire Squad
    Slow Train – Bob Dylan & Grateful Dead
    This Train – Roger McGuinn
    This Train Is Bound For Glory – Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Ellis Paul, Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
    Train Don’t Leave – Richard Thompson
    Train Song – Feist and Ben Gibbard
    Train That Carried Jimmie Rogers Home – Eilen Jewell & Dan Fram

  • Jim Roberts

    Trains take everyone, the great and powerful and the low and meek, to the same destination. That’s a pretty powerful metaphor for death, right there.

  • Blue #

    Trains go out from Mississippi to Chicago. The shotgun shacks of the sharecroppers at Hopson’s Plantation in Clarksdale are within thirty feet of the tracks. They were agents of liberation and delivery even without the metaphor. If the South was hell, the North was the promised land. (The first trade union for African Americans was the Pullman Car porters’ union. Pullman porters also often had a sideline in selling race records pressed in the North to southern customers.)

    Plus, they’re just musical in a way other forms of transport aren’t. The rhythm that the drivers made; that high lonesome whistle. They cut through the Southern night. Beginning harp players learn to chug like a train engine.

    There need to be more bus songs, though.

  • thatotherjean

    Everybody else has all my train songs covered, except for

    The Ballad of Casey Jones — Johnny Cash

  • Jurgan

    Probably has to do with the fact that a train’s path is set and cannot be changed.  Anyway, I’d recommend “Long Black Train” by Josh Turner.  Not just death in that one, but judgment and the devil.

  • Jurgan

    There was the ending to North by Northwest, also…

  • Jeremy

    Man, I can’t BELIEVE Train Train by Blackfoot isn’t on anyone’s list! (

  • guest

    I don’t usually look at these posts (being a classical music fan myself) but I build trains for a living so had to check it out–fascinating stuff here.  Here’s one to add–Randy Newman’s Dixie Flyer:

  • guest

    I used to take that train the other way all the time…lived in New Orleans, but my family and friends were in the SF Bay Area.

  • And…because I’m still thinking about this…

    Local H, “Blue Line” from an album that uses the Blue Line as a metaphor for the desperation caused by American politics.
    Scott Lucas & the Married Men, “Stolen Umbrellas” about living under the L
    Waterboys, “Some of My Best Friends are Trains”
    Lovehammers, “Dancing on the Track,” which is rather explicitly about sex
    The Railbenders, “Lonesome Train”
    The Railbenders, “Hellbound Party Train”
    The Railbenders, “Midnight Train” (interesting how a band called The Railbenders would have songs about trains…)

  • Vermic

    From Metalocalypse:

    “MASHED POTATOES” JOHNSON: This is where the blues began, right here where we’re standing.  Blind Harlan Davenport killed his wife, buried her in that chicken coop right there.  That night, he recorded “Wife Gone on the Funeral Train Blues.”  Next morning, police shot him in the eye 52 times.

    JOHNSON: This is where Smokey Toe Brown was savagely beaten for sleeping with his neighbor’s wife, shortly before he recorded “Train Leave this Station Blues”.

    JOHNSON: Everybody knows Shorty Turnytop made a deal with the devil.  He was hit by a train at this exact spot.  As his head traveled in the air, he wrote “Blues Train Blues”.

    SKWISGAAR: All they sing about is trains?

    JOHNSON: Well, is there anything else really to talk about?


    “B Movie Box Car Blues”, Blues Brothers
    “Daly City Train”, Rancid
    “End of the Line”, Traveling Wiburys
    “Last Train”, Travis
    “Locomotive”, Guns N’ Roses
    “Long Train Runnin'”, Doobie Brothers
    “Morning Train (Nine to Five)”, Sheena Easton
    “She Caught the Katy”, Blues Brothers
    “Train in Vain”, The Clash
    “Train Wreck on Prom Night”, Pajama Slave Dancers

  • DorothyD

    Driver 8 – R.E.M.
    Ghost Train – Counting Crows
    Railroad Boy – Government Mule
    Stop This Train – John Mayer
    This Train – Buckwheat Zydeco
    Train Wreck – Sarah McLachlan
    Zion Train – Bob Marley and the Wailers

  • guest

    Oh there’s also this one:  The Beeching Report, ILikeTrains

  • Launcifer

    My post appears to have been eaten, so my apologies if this turns into a double-post:

    Freight Train Joan Baez (though the internet tells me it was written by Elizabeth Cotton. There’s a Peter Paul and Mary cover, too, if memory serves).

    Love in Vain – Robert Johnson.

    Homeward Bound – Simon and Garfunkel.

    Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne.

    A Quick One (While he’s Away) – The Who (why, yes, I did put this in specifically so I could type Ivor the Engine Driver, however did you guess?)>

    Join Together – The Who.

    Catch a Train – Free, though I can’t find a version of this online right now. Damnit.

  • Bronwyn

    With a train, the main decision you make is whether to get on or not. After that it’s all up to the driver and the track, right? I can see how this gets rather inevitable and fatalistic, even in the situations where the traveller decides to go on the journey.

    Getting on a train or boat is often used as dramatic shorthand for
    “important life decision is made and there is no going back.” Trains or boats are slow and committed forms of travel — you can’t stop them and turn around easily, especially not when setting off across a continent or ocean. Buses and planes are more reversible — short haul, easier to get off and turn around because you realize ohmigod you made a terrible mistake but you can fix it if you go back fast enough.

    Also, in eschatological train songs, how have we missed Chris DeBurgh’s “Spanish Train”?

  • Long Black Train Josh Turner

    It has an old time gospel music sound:

    “Cling to the Father and his holy name,
    And don’t go riding on that long, black train.”

    ETA: I looked through the thread and missed Jurgan’s post above, sorry.

  • rizzo

    Mystery Train – The Jerry Garcia Band cover
    Stop That Train – The Dead
    Always liked the 10k Maniacs version of Peace Train better than Cat Stevens…does that make me a bad person?;)

  • Link for Baby Likes to Rock It:

  • Runaway Train” – Soul Asylum
    This Train Is My Life” – Marillion
    Train Wreck” – Sarah McLachlan

  • “Little Black Train”–Joe Bethancourt (The Manley Wade Wellman version.)
    “No One Takes the Train Anymore”–Holly Dunn
    “Not Just a Train”–Spirit of the West (Specifically about trains as metaphor.)

  •  Getting on a train or boat is often used as dramatic shorthand for
    life decision is made and there is no going back.” Trains or boats are
    slow and committed forms of travel — you can’t stop them and turn
    around easily, especially not when setting off across a continent or
    ocean. Buses and planes are more reversible — short haul, easier to get
    off and turn around because you realize ohmigod you made a terrible
    mistake but you can fix it if you go back fast enough.

    And with this we get to free association with Sons of Bill’s “Roll on Jordan” (the song itself starts at about the 2:30 mark, but the intro’s pretty cool).  From that we get this:

    And in this sad world we live in
    The government bought all the trains
    And there’s a lot of lonely people
    And they’re flying aeroplanes
    Well, they think they’re closer to heaven
    Lord, that is far from true
    You gotta take that ride on the River of Jordan
    See what a boy from Galilee can do

  • noyatin

    Big Railroad Blues – Grateful Dead
    Casey Jones – Grateful Dead (Ridin’ that train…)
    Caution Do Not Stop On Tracks – Grateful Dead
    Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie – Louis Jordan
    Milk Train – Jefferson Airplane
    The Monkey and the Engineer – Grateful Dead, Dave Rawlings
    New Potato Caboose – Grateful Dead (not about a train, but couldn’t resist the title)
    Number 9 Train – Tarheel Slim
    Train Kept A Rollin’ – Tiny Bradshaw, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio (the best, with Paul Burlison’s unforgettable lead guitar), Yardbirds, Aerosmith
    Train Time – Cream

  • rm

    There is just too much to choose from, I would have to type out half the songs in my iTunes library.

    Thoughts prompted by some earlier commenters — boarding a train is an irrevocable decision, once you are on you can’t turn back. Once you are on, the course is set by the track and the driver. It takes everyone to the same place. A train has unstoppable momentum and is rhythmic. Its noises are part of the landscape. It brings things and people from far away, and it takes people away forever.

    Trains are in a lot more songs than the ones where the title says so.

    “I’ve got one foot on the platform/ The other on the train/ I’m going back to New Orleans/ To wear that ball and chain” — House of the Rising Sun

    “I’m standing at the station but I can’t get on the train” — Tom Waits, “Blind Love”

    “Oh no, he said, that will not do/ I want to die so free/ I want to die for the engine I love/ The hundred and forty three” — “The FFV”/”Engine 143” — This is a pretty freaky display of loyalty unless the train has some eschatological or symbolic meaning. It’s especially freaky to listen to this while re-reading Felix Gilman’s wonderful fantasy novel The Half-Made World in preparation for reading the sequel that just came out. In his fantasy world, trains are embodied demons called Engines that have a passion for heavy industry and reducing the natural world to factory-made order. I almost capitalized “Engine” in the song lyric.

    “Casey said before he died/ There’s two more roads I’d like to ride/ The fireman said what could they be?/ The Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe” — “Casey Jones” — I think the point of that is that Casey knows he’s about to sacrifice his life to save others, and he is saying he wishes he could keep on living an ordinary life.

  • There’s also the old tradition of jumping trains; unlike most passenger transportation, anyone could get on one no matter where they were or what their circumstances. So maybe the conductor didn’t like you; there’s plenty good room with the hobos in the freight cars.

  • rm

    “Take the A Train” written by Billy Strayhorn, most canonically performed by Duke Ellington. Maybe subways are a different topic, but in this case I don’t think so.

  • Vermic

    Buses and planes are more reversible — short haul, easier to get off and turn around because you realize ohmigod you made a terrible mistake but you can fix it if you go back fast enough.

    In this vein, I’ve been thinking about the Box Tops’ “The Letter” and how it starts: “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane / Ain’t got time to take a fast train.”

    Here, the protagonist is making an important life decision, but he can’t wait to do it — he can’t wait to get where he’s going.  With trains and boats, and also cars and trucks and motorcycles and anything goin’ down that long ol’ road, there is the sense of the journey being important.  It’s not just about getting somewhere, it’s about going somewhere.  They are forms of transportation when you’re going toward your destiny, but you’re in no hurry to get there.  Or when you don’t know your destiny and hope you’ll find out when you get there.  Either way, you are likely to have adventures and epiphanies along the way.  (“The Gambler” could only ever have happened on a train.)

    But when you already know your destiny and want to meet it, no stops or adventures on the way, nothing but air travel will do.  Listening to “The Letter”, there’s a protagonist who would never settle for a train — he’s so fired-up that if he couldn’t find an aeroplane ticket, he’d probably sprout wings himself.

  • If we’re including subways, we have to have “Charlie on the MTA” (officially just “MTA”, but try googling that). 

    If trains take you places, subways trap you in an infinite loop of existential torment.

  • spinetingler

    The Who – 5:15

  • Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Train:

  • thatotherjean

    Fished a couple more out of the dusty corners:

    Chattanooga Choo Choo – The Andrews Sisters

    Rock Island Line – Johnny Cash

  • Bronwyn

     The connotations for the method of travel would be different depending on the era…today, yes, when you know where you’re going only a plane will do. But not that many decades ago, trains were the fastest method, so they would have had that charged-up feel to them as well as the sense of commitment they retain, which might explain a lot about the complexity of their associations.

    Before that, it was fastest horse vs. normal horse/coach vs. foot, and their naval equivalents. When you’re in a Regency romance and your love elopes with that despicable fortune-hunter, you take the fastest horse (possibly in your phaeton) and post road with regular and expensive changes of horses, to catch up with their coach or stagecoach, before they reach either Gretna Green or an inn where the rake will dishonour her. In a more contemplative mode, the newly penniless heroine will take the stage to London to find work as a governess.

  • “Long Train” – Sisters of Mercy
    “Locomotive Breath” – Jethro Tull

  • Vermic

    It will be interesting to view the state of musical symbolism after we invent teleporters.

  • Lee B.

    Shiny Rails of Steel” – John Hartford
    New York Central Blues” – Son House

    Two that have already been mentioned, but I associate with other performers:
     “Rock Island Line” – Leadbelly
    City of New Orleans” – Arlo Guthrie

  • interleaper

    Sky Train – The Creatures
    Mrs. Train – They Might Be Giants
    Train – 4 Non Blondes
    Train Of Angels – Joe Satriani
    Pastelka On The Train – A Hawk And A Handsaw
    Phantom Train – Nobuo Uematsu
    She Caught The Train – UB40
    Mr. Tinkertrain – Ozzy Osbourne
    Boat Train – The Pogues
    Night Train To Lorca – The Pogues
    Freight Train – Elizabeth Cotten
    Hot Rails To Hell – Blue Öyster Cult
    Never Marry A Railroad Man – Shocking Blue
    Roll Engine Roll – Shocking Blue
    Ticket To Ride – The Beatles
    Rock Island Line – Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group

  • Again, my all-time favourite grouping of bands has a couple:
    “Kundalini Express”, Love & Rockets
    “Bound For Hell”, Love & Rockets

    Also worth mentioning:
    “I Often Dream Of Trains”, Robyn Hitchcock
    “Into You Like A Train”, The Psychedelic Furs
    “Spice Train”, Thomas Dolby
    and, for a change of pace, “Long Train Running”, Bananarama, and I don’t actually know whether it’s a cover of the Doobie Brothers one Fred provided above, yet.

  • interleaper

    Oh, and:
    Immigrant Song – Amsterdam Klezmer Band

  • guest

    Anyone else remember Stan Freberg’s version of the Rock Island Line?

  • rizzo

     Damn, I knew that I was missing some Dead train songs but it was too early in the morning for me to come up with them…

  • ospalh

    Crawling up a Hill, Katie Melua,
    Trans Europ[ae] Express, Kraftwerk,
    Sonderzug nach Pankow, Udo Lindenberg, a (West-)German Chattanooga Choo-choo cover, where he successfully begged to be allowed to play in East Germany.
    The Subway Song, Tom Lehrer , what he thinks about Boston, finally, not a song, but “train music”: Different Trains, Steve Reich,

  • Sam Kabo Ashwell

    Twice the First Time, Saul Williams
    Ghost Train, Gorillaz
    If Love Was A Train, Michelle Shocked
    Downtown Train, Tom Waits
    M.T.A., Kingston Trio
    Skinhead on the MBTA, Dropkick Murphys
    Dirty Tube Train, Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee
    In The Pines, every bluegrass musician
    Roots Train, Junior Murvin

  • Azelie

    Coal-Train Robberies – Elvis Costello
    Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
    Southbound Train – Nanci Griffith
    Train – Uncle Tupelo
    Auctioneer (Another Engine) – R.E.M.