Music to watch trains by


A treat for you today as commenter and friend of The Dabbler John Halliwell brings you music inspired by the rhythm of the trains…

As a child I developed an almost fanatical love of the steam engine; I doubt Betjeman felt that love any more intensely. Winter was a favourite time: sat shivering on an oak fence, a fence, I was told, as old as the railway itself, at the top of an embankment; bright sun, everything glistening white, so cold, half-expecting to be found later in the day as a frozen corpse; watching the platelayers checking and adjusting the gaps between the contracting rails, and when they’d gone waiting for the first signs of a train approaching, peering, almost transfixed, at a spot two miles distant on the edge of a wood; desperate for the giveaway sign of smoke. And then, if alone, the unspoken: There it is! It was best when the train approached at high speed, the engine rocking like a clockwork drunk, the exhaust at full blast with a perfect pulse, the piston and connecting rods a blur, about to disengage, fly off, and kill me, and the rapid clickety-clacking of wheels running over those rail joints. All of this motion and sound in glorious unison; perfect rhythm; the rhythm of a train, an inspiration for so many musicians and filmmakers.

Geoffrey Jones, the brilliant documentary film director and editor, produced what is, for me, one of the finest combinations of film and music. His Snow (1963) brought together film shot over nine days in locations across the country, and combined it with Teen Beat written by the jazz/rock drummer Sandy Nelson. Jones was unable to obtain clearance to use Nelson’s original recording so used an arrangement by British musicians. The new recording was edited then mixed to twice its original length, then reduced to half its original speed; it was then accelerated over a period of eight minutes to a speed twice that of the original. It was then re-recorded using various filters to give the dimensional quality required to match the picture. The result is astonishing:

I love the purity of Judy Collins’ voice, and it was through her album Judith (1977) that I discovered a song written by Steve Goodman describing a train journey from Chicago to New Orleans on the Illinois Central Railroad called The City of New Orleans. I thought it was good, but missing something, but what? Was it too pure? I went several years without discovering what it was, but then found Willie Nelson, and everything fell into place:

Sam Phillips, record producer and founder of the Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records, used to boast to his competitors that if he could find a young white singer who could sound and feel like a negro he would make a billion dollars. In 1954 Phillips discovered such a singer, but the most he made was $35,000 when he sold Elvis Presley’s recording contract and the Sun tapes to RCA Victor.  Those tapes revolutionised pop/rock music and showed a 19 year old Presley, supported by a superb guitarist, Scotty Moore, and a top bass player, Bill Black, as wonderfully intuitive and uninhibited.  The rhythm of the railroad cried out for an interpreter with these qualities. Here is Presley with Mystery Train:

Vivian Ellis, the English composer of light music, wrote a theme for the radio series Paul Temple, the tales of a fictional detective. It ran from the 1930s to the 1960s. The highlight of the programme, for me, was that theme music: The Coronation Scot. But, as Ellis states in the Intro, it wasn’t inspired by the Coronation Scot at all, but by a journey far less glamorous:

I’ve used the final piece once before on The Dabbler; it’s so good I include it here, without apology. The marriage of film, poetry and music, when featuring great artists, is so rare that when it occurs it has to be treasured, and the GPO film unit, working with Britten and Auden gave us in Night Mail one of the truly great short films. Everything seems to fit together perfectly:

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13 thoughts on “Music to watch trains by

    John Halliwell
    March 10, 2013 at 17:41

    Thanks Worm, and for that link to Mike Brodie’s photographs; they are tremendous. Perhaps it won’t be too long before someone finds just the right music to put with the photos and creates another YouTube gem.

  2. Brit
    March 10, 2013 at 19:57

    Wonderful stuff, thanks John.

    The Willie Nelson reminds me in fact of those US truckin’ songs, as used in Smokey and the Bandit etc. Perhaps that’s a future Sunday…

  3. Brit
    March 10, 2013 at 19:58

    Incidentally, I recommend the move ‘The Station Agent’, in which the dwarf from Game of Thones is a depressive trainspotter.

      John Halliwell
      March 10, 2013 at 20:42

      Thanks for the invite, Brit. I should add that I was never a depressive trainspotter; occasionally euphoric, yes, and at my most euphoric the day our little four carriage local train pulled into Crewe and there gleaming in the late afternoon sun was the massive BR Standard Class 7: Number 70015 ‘Apollo’. God, the beauty, the latent power of it. The journey home, pulled by a tiny tank engine, was one of the major anti-climaxes of my life.

      March 10, 2013 at 23:34

      Please, please, would one of you erudite Dabblers (yes, I know, a redunduncy) do a post on trainspotting? it absolutley fascinates me. Railways were a much more key and formative influence for us North Americans that they were for you, but this character is, as far as I know, completely unknown to us.

      A few years back Peter Hitchens wrote a Waugh-like rant against new security regs that made trainspotting illegal, or at least subject to surveillance. He fuliminated and snorted at this outrage against the Englishman’s traditional liberties, but he never explained why it touched such a chord.

        John Halliwell
        March 11, 2013 at 07:42

        I suspect you could find at least one bloke of a certain age on every British high street who would be delighted to write that post, Peter. I remember a few years ago standing in a trains only book/dvd shop close to Manchester Piccadilly Station rummaging through the treasures while my wife shifted from one foot to the other in a corner sheltering from the rain. When we left she observed: “Do you realise that every single man in there, including you, was wearing an anorak. How sad is that?” She simply didn’t understand.

        As I thought about a theme for this post, I considered doing something on those outstanding female singers from Canada and was going to head it ‘Canadian Specific’. As my wife might say: “You and bloody trains!”

    March 10, 2013 at 22:43

    Great post, John. Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro is also excellent music to watch steam trains by – as seen in this video clip.

      John Halliwell
      March 11, 2013 at 06:46

      Thanks Susan. The Elgar works so well.

      When I first heard Schubert’s sublime 9th Symphony, I thought how wonderfully well young Franz captured the rhythm of a train, particularly with that recurring theme in the fourth movement. It left me convinced that in his second job he went under the name of George Stephenson; either that or he was fireman on the 3.15 Euston to Liverpool express on the day in 1955 when 70000 ‘Britannia’ came out from under the bridge at Old Hartford station. The blast from the exhaust as it hit open air was so exciting I very nearly fell down the embankment and onto the line.

      Here’s Franz, stoking the boiler to great effect at 47.28.

    March 11, 2013 at 13:56

    One word John, evocative. Now more words, more please and in answer to Peters request for trainspotting stuff (erudite variety) It has probably changed since the Eurocash poured in but Warsaw station in the late nineties was awash with British Reggie Molehusbands, note books in mitten and gleam in eye. Poland then was a vast working railway museum it’s stations a vast begging bowl. Fighting off the beggars I enquired of one spotter “been nabbed yet,” overcoming his surprise at being spoken to by a bloke in an M&S business suit with a Geordie accent and a briefcase he replied “uh?” The Polish cops, finally emerging into the daylight after years of Russian domination were looking for collars to feel and the poor old trainspotters came top of the list, might be spies or something. The poor man was taken aback, he may well have eaten mincespies but espionage, I doubt it. We left the station and carried on with our journey to Gdansk, by plane, having travelled up by steam train from some god-forsaken shithole near the Ukrainian border with a name I could not pronounce and have long ago forgotten, the train was on time though.

      John Halliwell
      March 11, 2013 at 18:10

      Thanks Malty. Reggie must have got quite a shock when you asked him that in a Geordie accent; perhaps he was playing hooky from his job with Newcastle City Council and thought he was about to have his collar felt, or the pencils ceremoniously ripped from the top pocket of his anorak.

    March 11, 2013 at 16:34

    What a wonderful walk down memory lane – thank you JH. Time for me to clear my desk methinks Ed. Could you post my P45 – I couldn’t bear to come back in and collect it. I might sign-off with a few tales from the sidings at Rugby as I was one of those sad freaks that collected the numbers – but from the dying age of steam. Used to arrive home with bits of clinker and coal dust in my hair, from leaning over the bridges as these monsters trundled below…..

      John Halliwell
      March 11, 2013 at 18:12

      Thanks MM. Those tales from the sidings at Rugby will have to wait a long time yet. The word ‘irreplaceable’ comes immediately to mind.

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