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…it’s maths and physics, and Newton’s mechanics.

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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