Ten Great Tunes with Railroad-Themed Lyrics

Railroad-Themed Tunes

From the days of the steam engine, through diesel and electric models, the railroads have proven a potent source of inspiration for the composers of songs and for their lyricists. In recognition of the recent release of the movie Atlas Shrugged I, a movie that has both a railroad corporation and a missing composer as key plot points, we at justsheetmusic would like to present ten of our favorite of the songs that resulted from the romance of the rails. This list is designed to show the range of genres where the rails have worked their musical magic, from folk tunes to a jazz standard and an R&B classic, etc.

We’ll work in chronological order, so the presentation implies nothing about which is best!

1. The Ballad of Casey Jones: circa 1900.

We don’t know when or how this one got started. Though there are hypotheses, the only safe statement is that this is a song that appeared from somewhere and suddenly was everywhere not long after Casey Jones’ death. He died, as the world knows, in the employ of the Illinois Central Railroad in April 1900.

The Ballad is by turns factual and inspiring.

“Casey Jones, he died at the throttle/With the whistle in his hand/Casey Jones, he died at the throttle/But we’ll all see Casey in the promised land.”

2. I’ve Been Working On The Railroad: 1936.

This one hardly needs discussion. It is a favorite song of parents trying to get their children to stop fighting in the back seat of the family car on a long trip. You can find it on Matthew Sabatella’s “Ballad of America.”

At some point in its folkish development, this tune swallowed up a song that had begun life separately, “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dina.”

Intriguingly, the same tune is used in Japan as a nursery rhyme to the words “Senro wa tsuzuku yo doko made mo,” which literally means, “The railroad continues forever.”

3. Chattanooga Choo Choo: 1941.

Big band swing: in sad literal fact, if you were to take a train from the Pennsylvania Station in New York City and head to Chattanooga to find the gal you used to call “funny face,” you’d never be able to eat your ham and eggs in Carolina, the famous lyrics to this song notwithstanding. You’ll never even be in Carolina. That track runs directly from Virginia into Tennessee.

Still, nobody puts lyricists under oath. And “Carolina,” if pronounced to rhyme with “could be finer,” works perfectly here. Though of course the singer has to decide whether to pronounce “finer” without an “r” sound at the end or “Carolina” with one!

4. Take the ‘A’ Train: 1944.

This is a jazz standard, as different from “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” as could be imagined given the same early-forties milieu.

Actually, I’m taking some liberties with the above date, because the history of the creation of this song is … complicated. But Joya Sherrill wrote the lyrics that year.

Listen to the song as performed by the Dave Brubeck quartet, here.

5. Last Train to Clarksville: 1966.

By the Monkees! This group came into existence because TV executives decided there had to be a pseudo-Beatles. Notice that the name of the “Beatles” is a punning variant on the name of an insect, “beetles.” The first syllable is given a gratuitous “a” in order to include the musical term, “beat.”

The Monkees, on the other hand, changed the name of an animal in order to avoid including a musical term! They might have chosen to emphasize the fact that “key” has a musical significance by keeping the spelling but changing the typography: Mon-Keys, for example. But no, they decided to abolish the “key” altogether, and call themselves the “Monkees.”

Anyway, there is a real Clarksville, and it is one that gives extra poignancy to the lyrics of this song. It would be Clarksville, Tennessee, near Fort Campbell, Kentucky. A soldier in the 101st Airborne based there might ask his girlfriend to take a train to meet him at the depot before he is deployed overseas.

6. Casey Jones: 1970.

The Grateful Dead have their own interpretative twist to the death of Casey Jones in this song, not to be confused with the Ballad whence we quoted above.

“Casey Jones is ready, watch your speed/ Trouble ahead, trouble behind/And you know that notion, just crossed my mind.”

7. City of New Orleans: 1972.

The train they called “The City of New Orleans,” the train that inspired this song, was the property of the Illinois Central – the same railroad that had once employed Casey Jones.

Arlo Guthrie made this song, and this train, famous. Other musicians who have lent their voices to the same notes and words: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Judy Collins, and Jerry Reed. Actually, John Denver’s version varies the words slightly. But who’s gonna nitpick? It is a distinguished list.

8. Midnight Train to Georgia: 1973.

This was the outstanding hit in the career of rhythm and blues siren Gladys Knight. Oddly, at one point in its composition it was “Nashville” that “proved too much for the man,” so he was going to take a midnight plane back to “Houston”! Ah, what a loss that would have been. As we all know, though, “L.A. proved too much for the man,” who headed back to the simpler place in time known as Georgia. On a train.

Thank goodness.

9. Crazy Train: 1981.

This heavy metal Ozzy Osbourne hit appeared in the “Blizzard of Oz”album along with another Ozzy classic, “Mr. Crowley.”

Mental wound’s not healing/ Life’s a bitter shame/I’m going off the rails on a crazy trainI’m going off the rails on a crazy train.

In the 21st century, Ozzy revived his show-business profile by becoming the patriarch of a reality TV family, along with wife/manager Sharon, son Jack, and daughter Kelly, acting mellow enough in the process to give the impression that his “mental wounds” have healed, at least a bit.

10. Last Train to Glory: 1994.

This is about as different from Ozzy as one can get. It’s Bob Carlisle’s Christian inspirational song on the album, “The Hope of a Man.” Enjoy.

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