The wreck of the Old 97 inspired a musical tribute (image believed to public domain, from Wikipedia)

Did You Know . . .

About the connection between Trains, Music, & Musicians?

by Ray Del Papa

Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail

This song made famous by Arlo Guthrie and written by Steve Goodman has become the anthem for the seasoned train buff in America. But it is only one of countless songs written by numerous writers and performed by hundreds of musicians about trains. From Pete Seeger to The Grateful Dead, these songs have become a major part of American folklore. Let’s take a closer look into the music and the musicians that have given us these songs which have only helped enrich our love of trains and model railroading.


Woody Guthrie left Pampa, Texas in the mid 1930’s, escaping the dust bowl and headed west, mostly riding the rails, to try to find work in California. He left his wife and two children behind. It was this journey that inspired him to write many of his songs, including his adaptation of


This train is bound for glory, this train.
This train is bound for glory, this train.
This train is bound for glory,
Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy.
This train is bound for glory, this train.

It was on this trip that Woody learned to hobo, a form of transportation he would use constantly in the 1930’s through the mid 1940’s. It was also during this time that Woody would ride the rails with other famous folk musicians such as Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Some of Woody’s songs that he either wrote or recorded with train themes are Hobo Lullaby, This Train Is Bound For Glory, Midnight Special, Lost Train Blues, Walking Down the Railroad Line, and The Wreck of Old 97. 


Hey talk about a-ramblin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
Talk about a-travellin’
She’s the fastest train on the line
It’s that Orange Blossom Special
Rollin’ down the seaboard line

Orange Blossom Special, written by Ervin T. Rouse, was about a famous Seaboard Air line passenger train that ran between New York and Florida. It has become the quintessential Blue Grass song, performed at numerous Blue Grass festivals around the country and recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Sea Train, The Charlie Daniels Band, and Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys. The song is best known for its long fiddle solo.

“For many years, Orange Blossom Special has been not only a train imitation piece, but also a vehicle to exhibit the fiddler’s pyrotechnic virtuosity. Performed at breakneck tempos and with imitative embellishments that evoke train wheels and whistles, OBS is guaranteed to bring the blood of all but the most jaded listeners to a quick, rolling boil.”

Written by Norm Cohen, author of Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong.

The wreck of the Old 97 inspired a musical tribute (image believed to public domain, from Wikipedia)

The wreck of the Old 97 inspired a musical tribute (image believed to public domain, from Wikipedia)


They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Saying, “Stevie, you’re way behind time.
This is not 38, but it’s Old 97,
You must put her into Spencer on time.”

Written by Charles Noell about number 97, a Southern Railroad mail train that ran on that railroad’s Piedmont Division, the line from Alexandra, Virginia, to Atlanta, Georgia. Number 97 was south bound on September 27, 1903, leaving Monroe, VA (a town just north of Lynchburg), and running behind time. Steve Broadey, the locomotive engineer, was given the order to put 97 back on time; Steve soon had 97 at full speed. Running dangerously fast he came on the White Oak Mountain grade just north of Danville, Virginia. This is where she lost her air brakes and wrecked, killing 14 people in the accident.

After the wreck, the line was relocated with a gentler grade. Back in 1987 when we were filming a newly restored steam locomotive, N&W 1218, we set up at a location north of Danville, just down from a curve and near where the old main came down White Oak Mountain. Number 1218 came around that curve, and in a tribute to Steve Broadey and the 14 people who died in the wreck of 97, the 1218 let loose on her whistle for a long minute.


Listen to the jingle the rumble and the roar as she glides along the woodland
o’re the hills and by the shore
hear the rush of the mighty engine hear the lonesome hobos call
he’s riding through the jungle on the Wabash cannon ball

This song is best described by that old adage of “putting the cart before the horse.” The original song was written by an unknown artist in the late 1800’s and is about a fictional train that many hobos rode. Years later the Wabash Railroad decided that it would name one of its passenger trains the Wabash Cannon Ball, after the song. The song was performed by many, including Roy Acuff, who recorded the Wreck of Old 97, and The Grateful Dead. Like so many of the songs about trains, the Cannon Ball has obtained a special place in American Folklore.

Harvey Girls, Judy Garland, and the Santa Fe

Then you pull that throttle, whistle blows
A-huffin’ and a-puffin’ and away she goes
All aboard for California, hey!
On the Atchison (on the Atchison)
On the Atchison, Topeka (on the Atchison, Topeka)
On the Atchison, Topeka (on the Atchison, Topeka)
On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe!

Judy Garland starred in the 1946 movie Harvey Girls with Ray Bolger, a story about the Harvey Houses set up by Fred Harvey to supply food and lodging to travelers on the Santa Fe railroad. The Harvey Houses were famous for the women that were employed by Mr. Harvey.  The movie is a musical interpretation of the Harvey House story and the Santa Fe railroad for which they served. It’s no wonder that the movie’s theme song would be called, “On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe.”  The movie and song became a major hit in 1946.


If you ever go to Houston, you better walk right,
you better not stagger, you better not fight
Sheriff Benson will arrest you, he’ll carry you down
And if the jury finds you guilty, penitentiary bound
Let the midnight special, shine her light on me
Let the midnight special, shine her ever-loving light on me

Even though Lead Belly was talking mostly about prison life in this song, the reference to The Midnight Special “shining its light on me” was about a train’s headlight that would shine into the cells of Sugar Land Prison in Texas. The reference to the train’s headlight has been interpreted many different ways, but its most popular interpretation is the hope that one day that train will take the prisoners home. This song has been recorded or performed by numerous artists including Lead Belly, Van Morrison, Arlo Guthrie, and Johnny Cash.


I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone.

Johnny was a big lover of trains; he even became the spokesperson for Lionel Trains back in the 1970’s. When he had his own show on TV he always performed a song that related to railroads. Folsom Prison Blues is the song that is most identified with Johnny Cash. And like the Midnight Special, its main expression is about prison life. However the train reference is very prominent.

I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free
But those people keep a movin’
And that’s what tortures me…

Johnny Cash went on to record more train songs than any other artist in history.


Over the years trains have played a major roll in our lives, we travel on them, watch them, read about them, make miniature models of them, and listen to songs about them. Personally, they have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My relationship with them is in common with many of the above references. The songs that have been written about them are way too many to be mentioned in this writing, as there are well over 500 of them that I am aware of.

Trains are a major part of the folklore of America. The songs that have been written about them reflect every aspect of our persona. They tell us about where we are as Americans, where we have been and why. Perhaps it can all be summed up in the chorus of the City Of New Orleans: 

Good morning America how are you?
Say, don’t you know me I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.


from the September, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter

Leave a Comment

Bot Check? *