Classic Railroad Songs
Folkways SFW CD 40192
- An excerpt from "Rail Dynamics"
- Train 45: The New Lost City Ramblers
- Kassie Jones: Furry Lewis
- Jay Gould's Daughter: Pete Seeger
- Railroad Bill: Walt Robertson
- Linin' Track: Lead Belly
- Freight Train: Elizabeth Cotten
- Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill: Cisco Houston
- Zack, the Mormon Engineer: L. M. Hilton
- Lost Train Blues: The Virginia Mountain Boys
- The FFV: Annie Watson
- He's Coming to Us Dead: The New Lost City Ramblers
- The Train That Carried My Girl from Town: Doc Watson
- Rock Island Line: Lead Belly
- Lonesome Train: Sonny Terry, Woody Guthrie, and Cisco Houston (Instrumental)
- John Henry: Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston
- The Wreck of the Number Nine: Rosalie Sorrels
- Freight Train Blues: Brownie McGhee
- The New Market Wreck: Mike Seeger
- Jerry, Go Oil That Car: Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock
- Way Out in Idaho: Rosalie Sorrels
- Old John Henry Died on the Mountain: Henry Grady Terrell
- Casey Jones: John D. Mounce
- Wreck of the Old 97: Ernest V. Stoneman
- Midnight Special: Lead Belly
- Wabash Cannonball: Doc Watson
- Lost Train Blues: Vernon Sutphin
- New River Train: Iron Mountain String Band
- Excerpt from "Three Little Engines and 33 Cars"
Folkways is doing some good stuff digging into its huge archives and building CDs based on themes, rather than artists. This railroad sampler is my favorite so far. We will have descriptions and reviews of both the Folkways children's CD and their Joe Hill sampler. All these CDs clearly are trying to be, if not all things to all people, at least satisfactory to some pretty cranky constituencies. As I've perused various folk music commentators, I've often read that songs such as these should be performed only by gritty voiced veterans of wandering the tracks. Other writers abhor the slick sounds of the studio, demanding straightforward renditions. Still others demand to hear the appropriate number of minorities represented. And yet others want good music well performed. Tradition. Authenticity. Diversity. All goals important to some. Not to me. I place myself firmly in the last group: those for whom quality is the most important.
There is a lot of that on this CD. I am not one who believes good musicians or good singers can't perform "traditional" music. After all, we sure don't know that the gravel voiced smoker has seen the inside of a box car any more than we know that the sweet voiced tenor hasn't. See Here for my uninformed thoughts on authenticity, however that might be defined, vs the equally hazy quality. Music is not an opportunity to satisfy my moral predilections or demonstrate my overweening self-righteous tendencies. It is a place to experience sonic pleasure.
This CD offers some very good singing, some great singing, and a heap of exquisite picking. Elizabeth Cotten's sumptuous guitar playing on "Freight Train," Walt Robertson's glorious finger work on "Railroad Bill," and the always excellent Doc Watson are highlights for me. Pete Seeger, not my favorite performer, performs wonderfully on "Jay Gould's Daughter."
A couple of the "authentic" voices are excellent as well. Haywire Mac and Furry Lewis, known only by name, both delighted me. Leadbelly, a "minority" if there ever was one, owns this genre, and three of his classics are perfect. With a few exceptions, Rosalie Sorrells being the most egregious, this is an excellent compilation, nicely framed by twenty seconds of steam engine on both ends. Enough for mood, probably not enough for the true steam locomotive fan, who can distinguish the whistle of a Reading 6 Chime from a Southern 3 Chime.
But for this web site, we are looking at Cisco Houston. Even if the chosen song isn't his best railroad tune, it is superlative. If he could have sung "Railroad Bill" over Robertson's guitar, that would have been a heavenly blend. As it is, we must be grateful that Folkways found one not on another CD but went back to the previously unreleased content and offered his stirring Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill in addition to his backup vocals on John Henry and some non-descript guitar on Sonny Terry's Lonesome Train.
The notes by Jeff Place are a bit self-important, with the "Who actually wrote this" analysis that seems silly with performances by guys who may not have been able to read. A common, and long-standing, tradition, in the folk music world. Oh well. A very fine CD. Even if insufficiently "authentic."
Some good, some not so good, except for Pete Seeger's "Jay Gould's Daughter" which is among his finest performances.
CD Notes:Jeff Place
Cisco Houston (1918-1961) was another of the cast of characters who recorded for Moses Asch in his early years. Houston spent his youth working various jobs in the west, including that of a ranch hand, picking up songs along the way. During World War II, he served in the Merchant Marine with his frequent musical partner, Woody Guthrie. Houston and Guthrie recorded many duets for Asch, and it was Cisco whose keener sense of musical meter would keep Woody on time. Unfortunately, Houston lost his battle with cancer at the young age of 42, too early to enjoy the fame he would have likely had during the folk revival of the 1960s.
The song "Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill" is "generally attributed to Thomas F. Casey" and was published in 1888 (Cohen 2000:555). The tarriers were the men who worked at drilling and blasting away rock to make way for track. Casey, in addition to being a tarrier, was an entertainer,a nd the song was included in the musical A Brass Monkey in 1888 (Cohen 2000:555). It has been recorded numerous times, and was frequently performed during the folksong revival.