Rollin’ Down The Tracks

Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.

The iron horse, the steel wheels, ribbons of track disappearing into the distance, the clackety-clack, strangers on a train, the lonesome whistle, the romance, the sense of another time in history, almost another dimension.

There are hundreds of train songs, far more than about any other form of transportation, which is odd given that America is so entangled with the automobile.

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Mystery Train

Elvis Presley
For LP Fans Only (1955)

Besides having a jumping Rock-A-Billy rhythm and one of Elvis’s most raw and soulful uptempo vocals, “Mystery Train” really is a mystery. The title is not even mentioned in the lyrics.

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Haunted station, impressionistic word bursts, sadness, dark veils of a world in psychedelic gloom.

Ginger Baker tattoos the drums like a mad tribesman. Jack Bruce, who co-wrote the song with regular collaborator and wordsmith Pete Brown, works his bass sparely but effectively and delivers broken-down palace ghostly vocals.

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Runaway Train

Soul Asylum
Grave Dancer's Union (1992)

The opening verse poses to us a sad soul who has evidently let slip away a love, who he proceeds to contact at an hour where nothing good ever goes down. We know from the start he is hurt, desperate – a key that could use a little turning.

He goes on to confess to her and the listener that he can’t keep promises, a long string of lost opportunities part of his make-up.

Click to dive even deeper into this song, one of the extraordinary musical works that makes Rock-N-Roll the greatest genre on Earth.

Casey Jones

The Grateful Dead
Workingman's Dead (1970)

From the opening snort up the nose, “Casey Jones” spoons up a funky, goofy variation of the legendary tale of heroic train engineer Casey Jones. (He actually existed and worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, a line that was later immortalized in Steve Goodman’s tune “City Of New Orleans” and a folky smash hit for Arlo Guthrie.)

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Hear My Train A Comin’

Jimi Hendrix
Valleys Of Neptune (1967)

Slow, bluesy, moody as a cold, foggy morning. “Hear My Train A Comin’” is vintage angry Hendrix. It’s easy enough to imagine him sweating up his frilly faux British duke threads as he torments his guitar strings into wailing, weeping improv lines.

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Can’t You See

Marshall Tucker Band
The Marshall Tucker Band (1973)

“Can’t You See” is a song defined by orneriness and fear wrapped together, and in the vocal tone alone, we can hear just why the love affair sketched out in the lyrics has failed. This is a drinking man’s song, a man who’s run up against a woman every bit as tough as he is.

Click to dive even deeper into this song, one of the extraordinary musical works that makes Rock-N-Roll the greatest genre on Earth.

Land Of Hope And Dreams

Bruce Springsteen
Wrecking Ball (2012)

Part of Springsteen’s onstage repertoire since 1999 but first released as a studio cut only in 2012, “Land Of Hope And Dreams (This Train)” drives the golden spike into America, past present and future. It does the same with the entire Springsteen canon. The song echoes, it stands tall, it ponders, it worries. Like the train at the center of the work, it enters a tunnel of despair and emerges if not quite in victory, certainly beaming with hope.

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Downtown Train

Tom Waits
Rain Dogs (1985)

Although born and raised in Southern California, Waits assumed the broken-glass, mean-streets vibe of New York City without – literally – missing a beat.

He also absorbed much of New York’s musical history from Folk to Punk to the radical inventiveness of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground.

Tossed into the salad for a little high seasoning are Tango, spoken Jazz, and white country-funk (as best epitomized by Neil Young’s band, Crazy Horse).

Click to dive even deeper into this song, one of the extraordinary musical works that makes Rock-N-Roll the greatest genre on Earth.

Gone Dead Train

Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse (1971)

No other song recreates the sensation of riding on a real train the way “Gone Dead Train” by Crazy Horse does. Of course, the band is Neil Young’s primo backing group. In 1971, Crazy Horse had its full-house compliment of members.

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Marrakesh Express

Crosby, Stills & Nash
Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)

You get on a train in London in the Swingin’ mid-’60s, make a short stop in L.A. in ’68, then find yourself in pre-terrorist Morocco. Somehow Bogart comes along.

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Waterloo Sunset

The Kinks
Something Else by The Kinks (1967)

Astoundingly, “Waterloo Sunset,” a huge 1967 #2 smash single for The Kinks in Great Britain and Europe, failed to chart in either the U.S. or Canada.

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The Weight

The Band
Music From Big Pink (1968)

“The Weight” figures as the song most steeped in the rampant American mythology of The Band’s Big Pink album, one that seems to operate somewhere in time between the Civil War and the waning of the 1960s.

The song is rooted in crypto-Biblical symbolism that hints at the lost, forgotten country roads traveled by itinerant preachers, medicine shows and hoboes, a specific type of journey that was being bulldozed aside by modern times.

Click to dive even deeper into this song, one of the extraordinary musical works that makes Rock-N-Roll the greatest genre on Earth.

Fast Train

Solomon Burke
Don't Give Up On Me (2002)

Back behind the 30th Street Station lies West Philly, once home to a neighborhood called “Black Bottom,” since displaced by the University of Pennsylvania and various medical and other quasi-public buildings. Until Black Bottom was demolished in the 1960s in the destructive movement known as urban renewal, it was a poor, but stable, racially mixed neighborhood.

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