It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

[l1]W[/l1]oke up this morning to the strangest sound; like living next to a major freeway, but more of a rumble. It woke me up, starting suddenly and rolling and rumbling like distant thunder. After a couple minutes, I got up to look out into the dark to see if I could make out what it was. The closest freeway is a mile away, and not busy at night. I couldn’t see anything that looked like a sudden LA-sized influx of traffic.

Suddenly it hit me. One of the joys of living on the north side of Sacramento is that most of these small towns were built around the railroads. I was hearing a sound I hadn’t heard like this in years—a passing freight train.

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to spend some time each summer with our grandmother. One of her houses (she seems to have moved more than most grandmothers) was right across a narrow street from railroad tracks. I remember that when we’d first arrive, each passing train would awaken me as it growled past. But by the second night, it was just a comforting background sound like the ticking and quailing and cuckooing of the huge German clock in the hallway.

Trains seem to inspire musical feelings; I know they do in me. I started making a list of train songs, and I hope to come back and spend a bit of time riding each one. For now, I’ll just spit out a stream-of-consciousness blurb for each. Let me know if you have any favorites, or if there are some I’ve missed.

[az]B0000CBLA8[/az]If Love Was A Train Michelle Shocked
Why Michelle ‘Shocked’ Johnston didn’t become a major star is beyond me. Brother Max (The Gourds) is benefitting from the same near-anonimity. Guess it’s better than watching ZZ Top go from serious blues influence to slithery pop gunk.

[az]B000000XCF[/az]Midnight Special Credence Clearwater Revival
My dad bought ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’ because it had this tune and ‘Cotton Fields.’ Since his death, I hadn’t heard the album until I got it again two weeks ago. It’s hard to laugh with joy and cry in pain at the same time.

[az]B000002IST[/az]Driving the Last Spike Genesis
Phil Collins accidently lets us get another glimpse of genious. Phil, Phil, Phil; come back to us and leave the trivial pop nonsense. This deserves a movie to be made of it. Collins actually did research before writing the song.

[az]B000001AYK[/az]Canadian Railroad Trilogy Gordon Lightfoot
Gord knows how good this is; it shows up on more of his albums than any other tune I can think of. I know Lightfoot haters who say, “But that railroad song; I can listen to that.” I want to go to Canada and ride the railroads for as long as my money lasts.

[az]B000001AYK[/az]Steel Rail Blues Gordon Lightfoot
Yeah, Canadians get trains better than USicans do. From his first album, it’s the kind of tune my Dad and his brothers would have taken to if it hadn’t been so quietly obscure.

[az]B005EVTBSM[/az][az]B00116GDBW[/az]Honky Tonk Train Time Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis
This one shows up in two different arrangements on the Smithsonian Jazz Collection; once on the piano set, once on the band set. (If you know someone who has these CDs, I’ll take out a bank loan to buy them. Call me; write me; send up smoke signals. I want these classics.) Kieth Emerson covered it as well. It rolls.

[az]B000001FX3[/az]Hellbound Train Savoy Brown
How sad it was to see Foghat live in ’98. Right up until the nostalgic bit in the middle where ‘Lonesome’ Dave Peverett took the lead guitar and did some Savoy Brown. No, they didn’t do “Doin’ Right” or any of the great stuff from “Hellbound Train” but they did justice to “It Hurts Me Too.” Buy “Hellbound Train”, but don’t listen to the title track. Some clown decided the re-issue should have a fade-out ending instead of the jarring vaporisation of the original. So, buy the “Savoy Brown Collection” as well; you’ll get the original unbastardized version of “Hellbound Train” plus more rockin’ blues than you can shake a pick at.

Aww. Just took a look for some info, and found out Lonesome Dave died from complications of kidney cancer in February of 2000. What a huge loss to blues.

[az]B00009P1O5[/az]Southern Pacific (Neil Young)
Neil’s ‘re*ac*tor’ is one of his very best albums. Huge crunchy tunes which repeat the fact that he invented grunge and is still its master; goofball stuff like “Get Back On It” and “Motor City”:

My army jeep is still alive
Got locking hubs and four wheel drive
Ain’t got no radio
Ain’t got no mag wheels
Ain’t got no digital clock
(ain’t got no clo-o-o-o-o-o-ck)

and ending with the driving, gut-wrenching “Shots.” No one, no one, rocks like Neil Young.

Oh, and how ’bout the track I stole this title from, or Harry Nilsson’s “Nobody Loves the Railroads Anymore”?

Man there’s a lot of train songs. Maybe I’ll start a whole new site.

Link Death

[l1]L[/l1]ink rot is a web phenomenon whereby links from one site to others begin to fail over time due to changes in the target sites.

I’m about to introduce link assassination. Since I have to remove all my CDNow links, but haven’t had time to get all the links, I’m going to just kill them until I have the time.

So, if you read back through older articles (anything prior to the first of December) the links are about to unceremoniously cease to function. I’ll do what I can to get them replaced quickly. In the meantime, you can find everything you need at, which is where we’ll be buying our music from now on, right?

Dead Man Blues Alive and Well

Dead Man Blues: Jelly Roll Morton[l1]F[/l1]erdinand “Jelly Roll Morton” Lamothe was such a colorful character that it’s not possible to discuss him at length here; it would take an entire book (and it has.) Instead, I’ll focus on just one tune: Dead Man Blues.

Many of Morton’s recordings begin with bits of banter between band members. The Smithsonian, in their “Smithsonian Jazz” releases (currently unavailable, I believe) removed these spoken bits, commenting that they were ‘apparently intended to be humorous.’ Perhaps I’m too far away in the stream of time (it was recorded 21 September 1926); perhaps I’m too culturally integrated (or not integrated enough?) but I prefer “Dead Man Blues” with the introduction intact. It’s better heard than read, so I won’t reproduce it here. Suffice it to say that they make it clear it’s not intended to be a dirge.

The final words of the spoken intro herald ‘the trambone-phone’ which, in the hands of Edward ‘Kid’ Ory, opens the tune with a jazzed rendition of Chopin‘s “Funeral March.” The trombone was frequently used for humorous effect in traditional jazz, and that’s the obvious intent here. A brief nod to Chopin, and suddenly the trombone, trumpet, and clarinet take off in their own polyphonic paths. Leading by turns, each instrument swirls out of the depths, does its bit, then drops to the background. First Omer Simeon’s clarinet, syncopating its way through a couple bars, and then, my favorite trumpet solo of any jazz tune. Not the fastest, not the most creative, not the most anything, as far as I can tell, but it just feels perfect. Picking up almost where the clarinet left off, George Mitchell’s trumpet has just the right amount of tremolo; it wanders gracefully through the first passage ending in a half-cadence that doesn’t really let you know if that’s a signal of more to come, or just a quirky conclusion. But no, another passage, so similar to the first, but stretched here where the first was stretched there. This one ends in a full cadence, and it feels right to have a traditional closure instead of something more complex or ‘jazzy.’

During the last minute of the recording, the horns converge, then just as quickly go their separate ways. This time, the clarinet and trumpet compete for the spotlight. Before a clear winner emerges, a quiet chorus and quick cymbal clash bring down the curtain.

On a completely unrelated note, I was reminded yesterday of Elvis Costello‘s “Elvis Costello album 'My Aim is True'Watching the Detectives.” I’ve always thought it was the soundtrack to Raymond Chandler‘s “The Big Sleep” but I can’t prove it. This is how a Gretsch White Falcon should be played. Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep Superb percussion, languid guitar, mysterious bass, and lines like “she pulls their eyes out with her face like a magnet” combine to form a truly memorable pop tune. (So how come I had to be reminded?)