Music of the Rails • Johnny Cash • 1970s

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US Railroad • Sunbeam Special • 1940s

I love this, and who wouldn’t travel on a train called, the Sunbeam…perfect.

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Chicago – New Orleans • The City of New Orleans + Panama Streamliners • Chicago + Illinois • 20C

The green diamond was the wonderful symbol for the passenger services of the Chicago and Illinois Railroad. The railway styled itself the Mainline of Mid-America…and provided a range of Streamline and Pullman services between Chicago and various big cities to the west and south. The main line basically follows the Mississippi river to the south.

The most famous service of the Chicago and Illinois was the City of New Orleans Streamliner which ran between Chicago and New Orleans…

In addition to the Streamliner service, the railroad also ran a full Pullman service.

Yesterday, I wrote a short account of where the sound of the railways comes from. This attempted to make the point that the rhythm of the rails, in song, is determined by the track…the engine and the speed adding additional elements. The journey starts, in New Orleans, with delta blues and ends, in Chicago, with rhythm and blues, jazz, soul and gospel. Brilliant.

On this blog, I write about aspects of design in relation to the railway because the railway system provides the best example of a mature and networked machine-ensemble. I’ve already written about how, as the machine-ensemble gets bigger and accelerated, it produces its own image culture designed to be engaged with at speed. Obviously, posters are a perfect exemplar of this phenomenon…Recently, I’ve begun to post a series of notes about the relationship between railways and music, especially in it’s orchestral, machine-noise and popular forms.

In relation to American popular music, the City of New Orleans route provides one of the foundation myths of musical development.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) effectively liberated the slave populations of the Southern US states and the Confederacy. This was an economic, and social, objective of the Union so as to facilitate the appropriation of labour into the developing industrial base of Chicago and Illinois. So, from the mid-19C onwards, there was a steady flow of migration northwards from the delta to the mid-west.

The migration took the music of the south, in its delta blues and gospel forms, and gave it the rhythm and drive of the tracks…By a happy co-incidence, the railroad passed through the city of Memphis too, where Stax records grew to become an important part of the story, along with Elvis. In Memphis, (train) rhythm  and (delta) blues combined to become the source-code for rock-and-roll and subsequent R+B.

The combination of old-school blues style and rock-and-roll amplification was especially popular in the UK where it gave rise to the most enduring of sounds…see Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin etc etc. There’s a branch-line from Memphis to the UK.

Here’s a note that I found online…

Tennessee is pop music’s Mesopotamia. Forget Liverpool, London, New York, or Chicago. If you want to experience the full then and now of the popular music spectrum, you need to head down south. In basic terms, Nashville gave birth to country. Memphis gave birth to rock & roll. As usual, the story is not really that simple. Both cities played a big part as crossroads for the spread of gospel, blues, soul, R&B, and jazz. Both were way stations where musicians passed through or put down roots, learning from others who were doing the same.

Needless to say there’s been a fierce rivalry between all these places as being the wellspring of popular music in the US. That’s daft, they’re all winners, and there are lots of other places beside too.

In the 1920s there was second great northwards migration out of New Orleans as a consequence of a prohibitionist anxieties about coloured music and low morals…it wasn’t rock-and-roll yet, but the sex and drugs were already attached in the minds of the new moralists. The influx of jazz musicians into Chicago helped to create the modern and secular form of gospel as Motown soul.

This story shows how culture, geography and technology combine, through people, into new and exciting forms…and as a movement.

And by a happy co-incidence, here is Johnny Cash singing about exactly this…


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Music of the Rails • The Theory

As part of my Music of the Rails project I have been thinking about the different kinds of railway music: there’s orchestral, machine-noise, jazz, swing, soul and country music at least.

The noise of the railway has always been understood in relation to the experience of modernity, and as a specific manifestation of the machine-ensemble.

If I were writing an academic paper about this, I would be thinking of a title which described the mechanical and environmental determinants of railway music.

In short order this would be about the rails, the wheels, the loco (steam, diesel or electric), the whistles. In addition I would want to consider the doppler effects of the train passing and disappearing. In the old days, the railway track was lined with telegraph poles. These were set at regular intervals along the line…and the experience of travelling on the train was associated with the look and sound of these things flashing past.

The time signature of railway music has usually been determined by the speed of the loco. Apart from the noise of the engine, the rhythm of the track is established by the sound of wheels passing over joints in the railroad…Nowadays, highspeed railways run on more-or-less continuous welded track.

In the old days, track was laid in standard lengths of about 20m. The track lengths were bolted together. Traditional railway carriages have usually had four pairs of wheels arranged at the ends of each carriage. The resulting beat of wheels over track is very distinctive, and provides for the drive of country-style rail rhythms.

You can construct the music in relation to the time and space of the railway, described through the speed of the train…

I haven’t been able to find a good explanation of all this in relation to music theory yet. I’ll keep looking.

If you listen to, say, Orange Blossom Special by Johnny Cash…that will give you an idea of what I am trying to describe. There’s terrific train beat from the drums that matches the clickity-clack of the train on the track, and the harmonica gives a great doppler effect of the train whistle as it passes.

This is from Johnny’s famous prison concert at San Quentin, 1969.

And here is an accelerated version by the Spotnicks…

The speed effect was enhanced in the studio…I like that even more.

And here is another version with strings…by Seatrain. The strings give it a bluegrass feel.


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Girl on the Train • Film Image • Trans Europe Express • 1966

Too right…

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Girl on the Train • Film Poster • Trans Europe Express • 1966

Modern poster for an old film…

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Girl on the Train • Film Poster • Trans Europe Express • 1966

Lovely new wave poster by Ferracci. In two sizes.

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Girl on the Train • Film Poster • Trans Europe Express • 1966

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Music of the Rails • SNCF • Dave Gilmore (Pink Floyd) • 2015

News story, in French, about Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour making a song from the SNCF audio ident…marvellous.

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Music of the Rails (and of the air) • Station and Airport Compilation

Strangely beautiful…and a kind of music.

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