As a young man growing up in rural southeastern North Carolina, I was often fascinated, and not a little frightened, by the sounds I heard nightly coming from the woods behind my grandparent’s house during my visits over summer vacation.
The house was located approximately a quarter mile from a set of time- scarred, steel and wood plank railroad tracks, which ran the length of my hometown and continued west towards the far regions of the state.
The trains that moved nightly over those tracks carried lumber from the local mills, stone from the local quarry and an infinite variety of electrical supplies, furniture and refrigerated food items.
None of those facts interested me. My imagination was fired instead by the hauntingly mournful whistle rising above the trees as I lay in bed gazing towards the woods, and by the slow reverberations from the trains passing that rolled through the room, across the house and out into the night. It was as if a great beast had passed and left only silence and wonder in its wake.
Judging from the abundance of train images, name checks and symbolic references that have found their way into popular culture over the past century, numerous other young men and women have shared experiences similar to mine.
These images, symbolic and otherwise, have turned up most frequently in popular songs – music and lyrics dating from the railroads earliest days right up to our present high-tech century.
In songs ranging from country kingpin Johnny Cash’s classic “Fulsome Prison Blues” up through the industrial throb and shudder of techno pioneers Kraftwork’s “Trans-Europe Express” and the metallic ravings of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” locomotives have played an important role in defining the sense of freedom, mystery and rebellion integral to the roots of much of this century’s defining music, influencing not only popular American culture but songsmiths and poets throughout the world.
A partial, and very abbreviated, list of some of the more famous songs might run something like this: Midnight Special (Leadbelly), (I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle Blow (Hank Williams), Love In Vain, (Robert Johnson), Love Train (The O’Jays), Zion Train (Bob Marley and The Wailers), Driver 8 (REM), Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Night and the Pips) and Wabash Cannonball (Roy Acuff.)
Not even English punk heroes The Clash were immune from the locomotives hypnotic pull, making a last minute addition, “Train in Vain,” to their classic “London Calling” album. The song, one of the bands biggest hits, contains no railroad imagery or symbolism but was named instead for the music’s propulsive, train-like rhythm – yet another way in which the railroads have helped propel popular music into the modern age.
Of course, apart from providing creative inspiration for numerous artists, the railroad systems have been of incalculable importance to the world’s economy and the shaping of our history, including that of Halifax County.
Completed in 1840, and at one time the longest rail line in the world, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad played a vital role during the Civil War, allowing rebel troops to bypass the Union blockade and transport supplies northward. A substantial portion of the supplies that reached Southern forces in Virginia in the war’s final months traveled over the railway, which became known as the “lifeline of the Confederacy.”
The Civil War transformed the train from a merely utilitarian force into a symbol of freedom for this nations slaves and a means of escaping southern oppression for their descendants. Since that time trains and the songs they’ve inspired have continued to act as an expression of hope, of nearly subversive transcendence from earthly bonds. From the aforementioned “Midnight Special,” written by blues songster Leadbelly while in a Texas penitentiary, to the gospel hymn “This Train is Bound for Glory,” covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Bob Marley and the Wailers to Sublime and including the memorable lyric, “This train don’t carry no gamblers, no whores nor midnight ramblers,” these songs of freedom continue to provide inspiration for the spiritually weary and physically oppressed.
This symbol of redemption continues to resonate in our collective unconscious so powerfully in fact, that country newcomer Josh Turner was able to score a recent #1 hit with his ode to moral fortitude, “Long Black Train,” in which the locomotive in question acts not as a vehicle of salvation but as a soul gobbling, demon -driven engine of evil.
Freedom of a far less spiritual nature also found its way into popular train songs. Country music pioneer Jimmy Rodgers, a former railroad brakeman, sang extensively of thundering boxcars and endless rail lines carrying him towards one high adventure after another, yet always with a touch of bittersweet regret: “Though my pocketbook is empty, and my heart is full with pain, I’m a thousand miles away from home, just waiting for a train.”
Whether offering a potent symbol of salvation for the weary and oppressed, enticing the hobo in all of us with the illusion of an all- but- forgotten freedom, or merely stirring the imaginations of wonderstruck children, the train and its metaphoric offspring continue to thunder through the songs and imaginations of dreamers across the globe. Long may they rumble.