Bain’s Blog, April 2010

      Date posted: April 19, 2010

train in tunnel

It can hardly be a coincidence that no
language on Earth has ever produced
the expression “as pretty as an airport”

-Douglas Adams
The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul

……. after a discrete and respectful pat-down and cavity search, passengers emerging from the full-body CAT- scan will be pleasantly anesthetized, wrapped in our designer bags, and gently placed in our spacious bins. Your traveling pleasure and security is paramount to us.

-Hypothetical 2011 Brochure

…… Stick some stamps on the top of my head. I’m gonna mail myself to you

-Woody Guthrie


I rode my first train in 1950, give or take a year. Harry Patterson was taking his two sons, Jim and Will—childhood friends— and me, fishing on the “Little Mississippi” just north of Kingston. This was a half-hour or less by car, but as he did not drive, we took the Canadian Pacific train from the downtown Kingston station.This was in fact the old Kingston-Pembroke Railway: what was affectionately—or otherwise— known as “The Old Kick and Push”.  We detrained at the Murvale station and walked for several miles along a back country road to where we could rent a rowboat. The fishes’ schedule notwithstanding, we had to retrace this route in time to put up the flag to stop the train. Age Of Steam and all that.. I was “hooked” on trains thereafter.

As for Douglas Adams’ line, I think it’s one of the great opening lines; perhaps not up to “Call me Ishmael”, but respectable. Some of the modern railway stations are no great beauties; but the feeling there is entirely different. And when I first came up into the grand concourse of Union Station, in Toronto, in 1952, the feeling was one of awe. A cathedral to Mammon perhaps, but a cathedral nonetheless. With only a few exceptions, I always entered and left Toronto by train, and always lingered on arrival, and arrived early to depart, to simply ‘groove’ on the place. In 1975, I routed  an Ottawa to Toronto journey by way of Montreal, in order to ride the “Turbo”.

What I liked most about train travel was that it gave one a sense of distance and changing landscape, and time to think. I rarely attempted to read, except for several trips to Toronto in the mid and late fifties when I would study the Schwann catalog: hoping to stump the clerks at the record department of Heintzman’s. Later, obscure composers, when I finally heard them, seemed old acquaintances.

I have thoroughly enjoyed flying in small aircraft—even a Tiger-Moth biplane—but the airlines have not transported me since 1997, and shall never again..

Link: “Transport Canada Advisory” ( Mercer Report )

Link: ‘Airlines Exploring Stacking’

So lets talk about Railroad Songs:

It seemed that every time I traveled by train in the early ’seventies, I had Gord Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” running through my head. Commissioned by the CBC for Centennial Year, it soon became one of our national hymns. And it was a good song— despite lines such as: “The deep, dark forest was too silent to be real”; not quite up to his masterpiece “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”; but good enough.

But for really egregious Boosterism: I nominate “The Founding of the Famous C.P.R.”, sung by Norman Blake on his album: “Chattanooga Sugar Babe” (Shanachie). Available on iTunes or e-Music. This was, imagine that, commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, early in the last century.


For Canadian Content, however, I prefer Stan Triggs’  ”The Kettle Valley line” on his ’60s Folkways album: “Bunkhouse and Forecastle Songs of The Pacific Northwest”  (Available from Smithsonian Folkways. or iTunes/ e-Music.)

I met Stanley Triggs, then retired to Hemmingford Québec after a long career as curator of The Notman Photograph Collection at the McCord Museum in Montreal. He was the volunteer curator of the Hemmingford museum, and we had frequent conversations there, at the Community Library, and at the Post Office. I missed Stanley entirely, back in the day, and our only real discussion of music was his remark, upon learning that I played guitar, was that he had owned a Martin guitar, now given to his son.

It came as a complete surprise when,in 2006 (Halifax), trolling through the newly offered Smithsonian/ Folkways catalog on e-Music to find his album listed. I downloaded a track and recognized  his voice. I especially liked his song “The Oda G” — sort of  Stephen King on a B.C. tugboat.  I truly wished that I had known that song; it would have joined Wade Hemsworth’s “Black Flies of Ontario” in my repertoire. (I have,however, included the melody, along with “The Blackfly Song” and “The Jam on Gerry’s Rock” in a current guitar medley.)   He confirmed his guilt in a return letter and we compared notes of what Pete Seeger coined “The Great Folk Music Scare”. Stan, as a young man, worked in the B.C. lumber camps and tugboats. He then used a mandolin, it being more portable for a peripatetic lifestyle


“If you want to ride you gotta ride it like you find it.”

I first heard “The Rock Island Line” in the Lonnie Donegan “skiffle” version, later learning of its provenance. John and Alan Lomax recorded the song by its convict composer Kelly Pace in 1934; Huddie Leadbetter, heard it from them and adapted and adopted it.  I think the best of his recordings of the song is on “Leadbelly Live”: Document Records and iTunes or e-Music.


Then there is the late Erik Darling’s  existential “Train Time”. Get this on “The Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall (1963)”:  Vanguard. This is one of the great recordings of anything anywhere. Vanguard sent in their “classical” recording team for it.


“Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors, twenty-five sacks of mail.”

My all time favorite railroad song is still Steve Goodman’s “The City of New Orleans”.  And especially in Arlo Guthrie’s more modal arrangement.

A daytime train operated by Illinois Central between Chicago and new Orleans; on the same route as “The Panama Limited”— the ‘All-Pullman’ overnight train. Significantly cheaper, it was instrumental in the Black migration to the north in the early part of the previous century.  Jazz is said to have come north on the riverboats; but in truth most of it came on this train.

And here is Tom Rush’s song, “The Panama Limited”,  based on several Bukka White classics. It’s great to see Tom still performing. Check out his album: “Trolling For Owls” (live)


Instrumentally: “The Last Steam Engine Train”

John Fahey, expanded by Leo Kottke;  I had let this one slip memory. I must get busy and see what I can do with it myself. Sounds not at all unlike Mississippi John Hurt’s “Aint Nobody’s Business” — Fahey tended to occasionally re-name songs when he did them as instrumentals.


Then there is Arthur Honegger’s “Pacific 231″
He originally titled it Mouvement Symphonique, only giving it the name Pacific 231 after it was finished. But it seems to fit the image of a steam locomotive, and is now accepted as such.  Also, Villa-Lobos’  ”Little Train Of The Caipira”: a movement of  his “Bachianas brasileiras  No. 2″


When we moved back to Halifax in 2005, it was my first overnight train journey on “The Ocean”.  Sleepless with the excitement of return, I spent the night listening to the percussion of the wheels; complex and shifting patterns as the track bed changed. Orchestrally, it would have required double tympani, side drums and two bass drums. Over this I improvised a Minimalist orchestral piece, of near symphonic length. It existed only in my mind and was forgotten in detail. But the process itself remains, the fragments you can never quite remember in any totality.


Goodman’s song had some lasting effect. The” City of New Orleans” , at least as a name, is preserved by Amtrak— as an overnight train.


“The disappearing railroad blues”.

And so they go. The Old Kick and Push is gone, as is the Kettle Creek Line. The rails torn up and sold for scrap; the roadbeds now hiking trails and ATV and snowmobile courses. Sic transit; but with fewer options of transit.

 John Edward Bain

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