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Trav’lin’ Light

Trav’lin’ Light

There are many, many songs of travel to specific locales; maybe I’ll get to some of those places—New York, Paris, Minot, North Dakota—eventually, but right now we’re just concerned with travel in general.

“I’ve Been Everywhere” This song of travel got me thinking about an extroverted uncle who married into our family of relatively reserved folks. For many years, my mothers’ family—her seven sisters and brothers and their kids—gathered every year at a lake for a family reunion. Lots of boating, horseshoes, dominos, and, of course, eating. When Uncle Jerry came along, he introduced several new things to the reunion mix: beer; jokes, which he had a library of that he delivered with verve; and karaoke.

Uncle Jerry had found his calling in karaoke. He’d been a successful salesman, of retractable walls, of all things. He got interested in karaoke at the VFW post (he was a Viet Nam vet), and then got himself a machine. He wasn’t a singer, but he could sell the right types of songs with his flair for performance. And what he truly was exceptional at was hosting. Through his emceeing skills, he built a little empire and was able to drop the whole retractable wall thing. He was The King of Karaoke! He went from the VFW to other clubs to bigger and bigger private parties (and bigger and fancier karaoke machines), able to be buddy and raconteur with any type of audience. And he brought his karaoke machine to our reunions at the lake.

When Uncle Jerry was killed in a car accident a few years ago, it was truly shocking to us all. But he left behind a cadre of protégé karaoke hosts, all hoping to live up to the King.

cash trav

My favorite of the songs Uncle Jerry sang in his booming bass was the tongue-twisting “I’ve Been Everywhere,” with its string of American towns that made up the verses. It was a pop and country hit for Hank Snow, after he talked the Aussie songwriter into replacing Australian cities with North American ones. I recall hearing it on café jukeboxes when I was a kid, when I desperately tried to keep up with the torrent of towns named. Johnny Cash had the voice of experience that perfectly suited this song, but then his version was used in a TV commercial.

gorilla

“Wandering” I think a lot of James Taylor’s version of this traditional folk song from his 1975 album Gorilla. I’m not always too crazy about the Sweet Baby James treatment, particularly of soul and R&B hits, which he makes a bit too bland and polite and, yes, white. On Gorilla, for example, is his hit cover of “How Sweet It Is.” Probably my least favorite song on the album. But there’s a plain-spoken poignancy about James Taylor’s delivery on “Wandering” that adds a lot of heart to the resigned, first-person tale of the drifter who has wandered “from New York City to the Golden Gate.” It has a Woody Guthrie sense about it. He can’t find a place for himself in the world, geographically, socially, philosophically. And Sweet Baby James really sounds like he’s feeling it, in his dry-as-a-bone North Carolina voice and in his equally crisp acoustic-guitar picking.

oday

“Trav’lin’ Light” This is a song many singers love, so much so that a couple have named albums after it. Anita O’Day’s specialty was her daring and dazzling phrasing through lightning-fast passages. But she also had a unique softer side, and she recorded a nice, restrained “Trav’lin’ Light” in 1961. Her Trav’lin’ Light album was a tribute to Billie Holiday, who had had her wonderful way with the song a couple of decades earlier. About 65 years after Billie’s hit, Queen Latifah called her 2007 collection of ballads and jazz and blues standards Trav’lin’ Light, and her version of the song is quite sultry.

Mr. 5 by 5

Mr. 5 by 5

Jimmy Rushing, Mr. 5-by-5, did a fine version of the song as well. (No jokes, please, about the rotund Mr. Rushing traveling light.) The song’s lyrics, by Johnny Mercer, are actually not about travel at all but about lost, missed love.

cassandra w

“Traveling Miles” The album Traveling Miles is a tribute to Miles Davis recorded by Cassandra Wilson in 1999. It’s got songs by Miles, about Miles, and associated with Miles. His “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” a winding, eerie number from his Bitches Brew album, is given lyrics by Wilson and retitled “Run the Voodoo Down.” She sings that “when it comes to traveling” she’ll “run the voodoo down.” The song “Traveling Miles,” with lyrics as well as music by Cassandra Wilson, is meditative. “Traveling miles / Crossing time / Shifting style / Traveling miles…and miles.” The players complement and highlight Wilson’s sultry, dark voice throughout the album, especially Stefon Harris, on vibraphone for Miles Davis and Victor Feldman’s “Seven Steps” and Wayne Shorter’s “Never Broken.”

Sheet music: "Caravan"

Sheet music: “Caravan”

“Caravan” Juan Tizol, while a trombonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, wrote two classics that became staples of Ellington’s band and many others. “Perdido” is a catchy tune, but “Caravan,” from 1936, evokes the mystery and allure of travel about as well as any popular song.

Hejira “Hejira” is defined as a journey from something undesirable. Restless travel is the theme of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album, from the title song to “Refuge of the Road” and “Blue Hotel Room” and others. She wrote the songs while on the road.

Honorable Mentions: Back when all my friends were converting from Elvis fans to Ricky Nelson fans (before becoming Beatlemaniacs), I stayed true to The King. I never got into Ricky. “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” However, my friend Rick does a nice version of “Travelin’ Man” that gives me an appreciation for the lanky heartthrob.

Other travel songs worthy of note: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band”; Billy Wayne Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On,” one of the first songs I ever learned on guitar (right after “Tom Dooley”); “Ease on Down the Road,” from The Wiz; “Where Can I Go without You?” by Peggy Lee

 

Lady Sings the Blues

Lady Sings the Blues

Most of the great blues musicians over the years have been men, but most of the best blues vocalists were women, starting way back with the greatest of them all, Bessie Smith.

bessie“Empty Bed Blues” Sure, Bessie had contemporaries with blues-singing skills—Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, and a host of other ladies with the surname Smith. But Bessie Smith was the real deal, and her big, unadorned voice transcends time in song after song: “Downhearted Blues” (her first hit), “St. Louis Blues,” “Taint Nobody’s Business if I Do,” “Careless Love,” “Empty Bed Blues.” Classics all, never topped. “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington, though, did record a quite enjoyable tribute album, Dinah Sings Bessie Smith, in 1958. Bessie died in a car wreck. The story that she died after being refused treatment at a white hospital has been debunked by eyewitnesses; however, it was the South in the ‘30s, so it is true that she had to be picked up by a black ambulance driver and taken to a blacks-only hospital, where she died from loss of blood.

lady“Lady Sings the Blues” The lady who had a song, an album, and an autobiography named Lady Sings the Blues (and about whom a movie of that name was made) was not primarily a blues singer. Billy Holiday was best known as an interpreter of pop standards, a vocalist of limited range and power but immeasurable depth and feeling. She turned pop schlock into pleasant, solid recordings, and she turned well-crafted songs into art. But she also did a fine job on blues numbers, including her own “Fine and Mellow.” A fifties television performance of this song has been called the greatest jazz performance on video. It is an unparalleled lineup: her soulmate Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, and other greats take turns on solos that answer Lady Day’s coolly-delivered verses.

cat“Back o’ Town Blues” Catherine Russell is one of my very favorite singers recording today. Her five albums are consistently excellent, the best example of a modern singer getting a retro sound but in a genuine way. Her songs, old and new, all sound timeless. The arrangements and instrumentation get an age-old feel but without any creakiness, and without being derivative. And her voice, on jazz, pop, R&B, and blues numbers, adds to the timelessness.She has her roots: Her father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s musical director for years. Luis and Louis wrote “Back o’ Town Blues” together; Catherine covers it on her 2006 debut album Cat. She does her father’s “Lucille” beautifully on her Bring It Back LP from 2014. Other blues numbers Ms. Russell does proud include “Under the Spell of the Blues,” “Sad Lover Blues,” and “My Old Daddy’s Got a Brand New Way to Love,” which has more than a little Bessie Smith in it.

“Write Me a Few of Your Lines” Another fine blues singer—and guitarist—is Bonnie Raitt. (She’s made Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers and 100 Greatest Guitarists lists.) Her father was Broadway leading man John Raitt, who starred in the original Carousel, Oklahoma!, and other classics. Bonnie’s been at it for more than four decades, always on the fringes of commercial success. Her earliest albums, before her first hits, are my favorites, with plenty of fine bottleneck guitar work and vocals that would’ve made her heroine Sippie Wallace proud. My favorite is her take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Write Me a Few of Your Lines.”

nina

“Blues for Mama” Nina Simone could do it all, from Broadway hits to Beatles and Dylan covers, from R&B and jazz to early folk. But she seemed most at home with the blues. After all, her blues feel and inflections show up in the Broadway and the Beatles—and she makes them fit, makes the songs her own. I listen to Ms. Simone intermittently, when the mood hits. But I have so many choices, with more than twenty of her records in my collection, that deciding on one can be overwhelming. I probably most often go to Nina Sings the Blues, which includes “Blues for Mama,” or to her excellent blues-dominated Forbidden Fruit album. Nina Simone was “difficult,” as they say. As I read biographies and saw documentaries about her, I imagined that it would’ve been difficult to have been a friend or associate of hers. She could be blunt, self-righteous, and headstrong. But she put that in the music, and that’s why it can be so powerful—particularly her blues performances. A new Simone documentary debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and the biopic that controversially stars Zoe Saldana as Simone is set to debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I’m eager to see both of them.

cassandra

“Come on in My Kitchen” Like Simone, Cassandra Wilson feels at home in many styles of music, including blues. Wilson gets way into the “real folk blues”—covering Son House, Elmore James, and other old-time Delta bluesmen. She transforms them into something personal, but doesn’t lose one bit of the classic blues feeling of these songs. She interprets two Robert Johnson songs—“Hellhound on My Trail” and “Come on in My Kitchen”—on her 1993 album Blue Light ‘til Dawn. Wilson’s newest album, Coming Forth By Day, is a tribute to Billie Holiday, who was an inspiration to her.

“Move Over” I must mention Janis Joplin, the most lauded and successful modern-era blues singer. I am not a huge fan, but there are several of her recordings I come back to from time to time, including “Down On Me,” “Cry Baby,” and my favorite, “Move Over.”An interesting side note: I was fortunate to have the opportunity a few years back to pore over the papers of the man who was Chief of Security at UT-Austin during the time of the Charles Whitman tower sniper incident (1966). In addition to some eerie first-hand accounts of that crime, there were numerous reports from undercover officers spying on campus hippie types. A name that appears on troublemaker lists frequently, as a drug supplier and user, is none other than Janis Joplin.

Honorable Mention: Susan Tedeschi, alone or with the Tedeschi-Trucks Band she fronts with guitarist Derek Trucks, is an exceptional blues singer. Plus, it’s kinda neat to have a hubby-and-wife blues-band team. And a little more solid than Jimmy Reed having his wife occasionally sing randomly behind him on recordings. Trucks (whose uncle Butch was the original drummer for The Allman Brothers Band) and Tedeschi won a Best Blues Album Grammy for their 2011 debut, Revelator.

Spring Is Here

Spring Is Here

It’s always titillating to hear a new wrinkle related to a Beatle song, since theirs are the most-played recordings in history. I recently ran across an online video in which Dhani Harrison, son of George, and George Martin, producer of George, rediscovered a lead guitar track George (Harrison) had recorded for “Here Comes the Sun.” It was interesting, but I preferred the song without it. Is that because I’m used to the song without it? Probably. I’ll never know, because I won’t be playing the added-track version anywhere near as many times as I’ve heard the original. In fact, I don’t imagine I’ll ever hear the “lost track” again.

The song is probably George’s greatest, and it’s particularly appropriate to celebrate this spring, in which we had so much ice to be “slowly melting.” It sho nuff has been a “long, cold, lonely winter.” Even here in Texas.

abbey rd

“Here Comes the Sun” has been covered by many. Nina Simone even gave one of her albums that title. Her version is nice, but my favorite of all is by Richie Havens. In my opinion, the most underused instrument in all pop-rock music is the conga. I hear congas on practically every song I listen to. “Big Pimpin’.” More congas. “I Fall to Pieces”—more congas! I’m like Christopher Walken with the cowbell.

richie

On Richie Havens’ recording of “Here Comes the Sun,” the congas are prominent, and it gives the song drive and immediacy, romping around Havens’ gravelly voice. I was surprised to find out that it was his only hit, reaching #16 in 1971. Havens got the opening slot at Woodstock and had to stretch his set to three hours to cover the late arrivals of other acts. So he featured prominently in the Woodstock movie, and gained far more fans than he’d have had otherwise, including me. But they didn’t buy many of his singles, which included two other Beatle numbers, “Lady Madonna” and “Rocky Raccoon,” and the song he improvised to keep his Woodstock set going, “Freedom.” So maybe he was mostly an album-format success? I own three of his LPs. People didn’t buy those either, turns out. Most Richie Havens albums barely cracked Billboard’s Top 200, or didn’t chart at all. Go figure.

jackie roy

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is one of my favorite songs. It’s got a melancholy message: The weather’s fine, the birds are singing in the tall, verdant trees—but you, my love, have gone away, and that makes it all so grim. Fran Landesman wrote the lyrics, riffing off of the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Tommy Wolf wrote the music. They mesh perfectly, and the song has been recorded often since it was introduced by Jackie & Roy in the late fifties. I have a nice version of it on the CD Loverly by Cassandra Wilson (Blue Note, 2008). It fits right into her eclectic mix of songs by Elmore James, Juan Tizol, and Rodgers & Hart. I also have an iTunes download of a nice version by Dallas singer/songwriter Lisa Markley. She does an appropriately atmospheric, wistful rendition. Another fine version is on Rickie Lee Jones’ CD Pop Pop (Geffen, 1991), which I think is RLJ’s best album. She gives it her quirks and it works. But I have many versions. I’m a “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” junkie.

cassandra

In the same vein—”this season should be so grand, but because you split it sucks”—is the Frank Loesser song “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” from the 1944 movie Christmas Holiday. Many have recorded it, but my preference is for the Sarah Vaughan version. She emotes it well: “You have left me and winter continues cold.”

“Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” was one of the Four Freshmen songs that inspired Brian Wilson to craft his own harmony-drenched pop tunes. Brian worked out the Freshmen harmonies of the Bobby Troup number, and the Beach Boys performed it regularly. In 1963, Mike Love wrote new lyrics to the song as a tribute to actor James Dean and his untimely death. He called it “A Young Man Is Gone.” Since Dean died in a car crash, this version became part of the Beach Boys’ car concept album Little Deuce Coupe.

frosh

The four-part-harmony group my friend Toby founded, The Gentlemen’s Club, probably enjoyed singing this one as much as anything we ever learned. We sang it a cappella, as The Beach Boys did. Alas, thirty years later, it’s one we don’t attempt with our aging ears and vocal cords.

Honorable Mentions: Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring Is Here” has been recorded many times since it appeared in the 1938 musical I Married an Angel. It’s been played by jazzers like Davis and Adderley and Evans and Coltrane, and sung by Sinatra, Fitzgerald, and others.

I’ve listened to and enjoyed the music from Duncan Sheik’s 2006 Broadway musical Spring Awakening. I have the CD somewhere, but I never think to get it out. I really would like to see a nice live production of it to get the full effect.

Great Song Title: “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is not only one of my favorite songs, it’s one of my favorite song titles, too.

 

Fool, Fool, Fool

Fool, Fool, Fool

Bob Dylan: Now Appearing in Nursing Homes Across the Nation! When I saw Bob’s face on the cover of AARP Magazine, it somehow seemed natural, fitting. He’s awarded them his one and only interview since the release of his album of Sinatra-covered standards, Shadows in the Night. The interviewer is actually a veteran of Rolling Stone.

Cover Boy

Cover Boy

I can’t say that I’m as thrilled about that album as all the critics (and many Dylan fans) seem to be. Oh, I’m a big fan of Dylan, including—almost especially—his late-career string of back-to-roots originals, from Time Out of Mind in 1997 through Tempest in 2012. But here comes Shadows in the Night. I applaud his making it, but I just don’t personally like his voice on these songs. I never listen to Self-Portrait either. I enjoy Bob doing his own songs, most of the time. I enjoy many others’ versions of Bob’s songs. But I don’t often enjoy Bob singing other people’s songs. Maybe it’s just me.

frank sinatra

Dylan kicks off Shadows in the Night with a Frank song that Frank co-wrote, the beautiful and sad “I’m a Fool to Want You,” from 1951. Frank did it well, like he did everything else, but this one was truly from the heart, written as he pined for Hollywood goddess Ava Gardner. Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, and others have done a good job of it as well. Elvis Costello sang a fine version with trumpeter Chet Baker accompanying.

Ahmet Ertegun is the best Turkish hit-maker I’m aware of. He founded Atlantic Records and hunted for blues and R&B talent to produce on the label. Early on, a business associate recommended to him that he take on the vocal group The Clovers, but they didn’t initially see eye-to-eye. In Charlie Gillett’s history of Atlantic Records, Making Tracks, Ertegun’s quoted as saying, “The Clovers were against all the things I wanted to do. They liked The Ink Spots, who I didn’t like at all.”

tracks

Ertegun, however, decided to become an R&B songwriter, and made The Clovers famous when he wrote “Don’t You Know I Love You,” which went to #1 R&B. It was credited to “Nugetre”—Ertegun backwards—probably because Ahmet, whose father was a diplomat, was embarrassed to be a kingpin of Rhythm & Blues. His second original for The Clovers, “Fool, Fool, Fool,” also went to #1. He went on to write quite a few more, all bluesy, gutsy hits. No more Ink Spots! The Clovers became a highly-successful, very influential group.

clovers

“Fool, Fool, Fool,” like “I’m a Fool to Want You,” was a hit in 1951. The Clovers had a second fool hit the following year, “I Played the Fool.” Their last big song, “Love Potion #9,” wasn’t such a big hit for them, but The Searchers’ cover of it made it to #3 pop.

Carl Sigman’s English lyrics turned Luiz Bonfa’s “Manha de Carnival” into “A Day in the Life of a Fool.” Bonfa had written the song for the 1959 Portuguese-language film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus). It was set in Brazil during Carnival and was directed by Frenchman Marcel Carne.

Frank Sinatra sang it with the English lyrics, as did Harry Belafonte. My favorite version of “A Day in the Life of a Fool” is by Cassandra Wilson, from her 2010 album Silver Pony. Like all of Wilson’s albums, this one is a well-sung, well-played, and well-produced potpourri of pop, folk, jazz, blues, and R&B. Wonderful.

guaraldi

My favorite instrumental version, recorded as “Manha de Carnival,” is by Vince Guaraldi, from his excellent 1962 album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus. The album also features a catchy Latin Guaraldi original, the 1963 hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

Mr. T’s catchphrase “I pity the fool” came to him by way of Bobby “Blue” Bland. “I Pity the Fool” was a Bland hit in 1961, one in a long string that topped the R&B charts. The song was credited to Duke Records owner Don Robey (under a pseudonym), but was evidently one of many Robey commandeered from Joe Medwick and other songwriters who got caught in his web. We can all pity the fools who bought Robey’s line and lost song copyrights.

Bland, who had learned to play guitar at the age of five, spent the forties in gospel groups. He was in a group, The Beale Streeters, with B.B. King and Johnny Ace in the late forties, and went on to be B.B.’s chauffeur for a while in the fifties. Bobby did get his break eventually, from the infamous Don Robey and his record label, and had a long and successful R&B career.

Can’t fail to mention one of my favorite Paul McCartney songs, “Fool on the Hill.” From the 6th chords to the recorder solo to Paul’s wistful vocal, it’s a standout.

Best Line: Zappa does it again, with this non-sequitur line from “Dancin’ Fool”: “I may be totally wrong but I’m a fool.”

Dream Jukebox: Ike & Tina Turner’s first hit, “A Fool in Love,” is one of my favorite songs of the era. It’s a little hard, knowing what we learned long after the song came out in 1960, to listen to Tina sing Ike’s lyrics: “You know you love him, you can’t understand / Why he treats you like he do when he’s such a good man.” But the song moves, and Tina’s already got a strong, gutsy voice, balanced nicely by the backup singers, and you just know she’s gonna come out all right.

I’ve Got a Thing About Trains

I’ve Got a Thing About Trains

In the New Mexico chapter of his 2013 book Eighty Days, about Nellie Bly’s 1890 trip around the world, author Matthew Goodman quotes a contemporary Rand-McNally guide on the Navajos’ fascination with trains. We can well imagine that Navajo fascination with trains was mixed with anger, sorrow, resentment, and dread. Trains helped the American Nation leap forward; trains quickened the Navajo Nation’s decline. On the 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, Harry and Miriam sing, in Xhosa, a tune called “Train Song.” The album’s liner notes say that the song is about African tribesmen who “see a train for the first time, and describe its movement.” It’s a beautiful, mysterious song.

The idea of train travel has fascinated many, and the mysterious aura of train travel has grown over recent decades as trains have been replaced by interstate highways and cheap air fares.

hank w

I, like so many others, have always loved the mystique of trains, possibly because my dad and both of my grandfathers worked for the railroad. Used to be a much more common occupation than it is these days. But I’ve only traveled by train once, long, long ago. Is it a coincidence that my two favorite Hank Williams songs, “Lonesome Whistle” and “Ramblin’ Man,” are also train songs? Actually, trains have little to do with my preference for those songs. But trains may have inspired Hank to do some of his best work, a major-key song and a minor-key song that both convey a regretful resignation to fate. “I can settle down and be doin’ just fine / ‘til I hear an old freight rollin’ down the line…”

My youngest grandson, at age three, is going through a train phase. A train runs past a park not too far from his home, and Nana tries to time visits to the park so that they can watch the train go by. He has trains at home, and it’s hard to get him off the train at the zoo. He has a one-track mind these days, one could say (but should resist saying).

Songs about trains have been popular for as long as trains have been around. There are big-band numbers—“Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “The Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe”; rockers—“Long Train Running,” “Casey Jones”; country and bluegrass standards—“Orange Blossom Special,” “Wabash Cannonball.” Familiar songs. Over-familiar, unless you can maybe find versions by Tiny Tim or Spike Jones.

cash train

The popular artist most associated with trains—since Jimmy Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman, anyway—would have to be Johnny Cash.  Of his many train songs (he even had three or four train-themed albums), from “The Wreck of the Old ’97″ to “Down There by the Train,” I choose “I’ve Got a Thing About Trains” from the 1969 album Hello, I’m Johnny Cash as my favorite. A good song that says it all about The Man in Black.

Bukka (from Booker T. Washington) White is at the top of my blues favorites list. White’s 1940 recording “Black Train Blues” is powerful and eerie, despite the fact that it’s just Bukka White’s voice and guitar, accompanied by Washboard Sam (on washboard, duh).  No frills, no tricks, just raw emotion, but under the masterful control of the performer. I love every song on the 14-song Parchman Farm album, and “Shake ‘em on Down” is the best blues recording ever made.

Bukka White

Bukka White

Louis Jordan has a couple of nice train songs. There’s the 1947 “Texas & Pacific,” which I hadn’t heard until I ran across a 78 of it. And Jordan, of course, recorded the huge R&B and pop hit “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” (1946), a much better-known song. The two songs are very similar; “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”’s edge is its hook, later swing-harmonized by Asleep at the Wheel. Many also have covered Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” but Wolf’s 1956 original is the best.

The closest I get to a rock tune on my favorite-train-song list is The Kinks’ “The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” from their kaleidoscopic The Village Green Preservation Society (1969). It has a rock beat, but, as most Ray Davies compositions do, it also has an element of theatricality to it.  The song and the album convey the songwriter’s nostalgia for earlier, simpler times.

The Peter Tosh-written “Stop That Train” from the 1973 Bob Marley and the Wailers album Catch a Fire is a nice train song from a country that doesn’t generally bring trains to mind.  Another Jamaican train song, “Draw Your Brakes,” graces the soundtrack for The Harder They Come, which is not only on my “best reggae album” list but also my “best soundtrack” list.  I’ll have to look into the Jamaican railroad thing a little more, since it’s really not a large country, but I see on Wikipedia that railways did once “enjoy a prominent position” in Jamaica, if no longer.

harder they come

There is one train-related recording from the nineties that I enjoy. It had been a bubble-gum hit in the sixties for The Monkees.  Cassandra Wilson’s wonderfully slowed-down and moody arrangement of “Last Train to Clarksville” is a gem that replaces the jangly and jittery guitar with tremolo-fuzz guitar and gives the song’s story a bit of mystery with Wilson’s sultry tone and the added seventh to the melody of “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.” I don’t reckon she could manage to add much mystery to “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” but I’d like to hear her try.

Top Song Dog Thelonious Monk recorded his song “Locomotive” several times, but it isn’t one that’s often covered. Monk’s recording of 1967 has become my absolute favorite Monk recording, possibly my favorite recording, period. I’m not sure why this particular one rose above all of my other “favorite Monk recordings,” which contain so many incredible contributions from players such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Monk himself. But Monk is exceptional here, as is his longtime sax player Charlie Rouse. This recording of “Locomotive” is part of the longest-perpetuated family ritual: On every vacation we’ve taken, from 1990 through today, we play the song as soon as we’re safely outside Dallas. It’s a good luck charm, and I seem to recall that the one trip we took without first locating our “Locomotive” recording, we experienced unseasonable rain, stomach bugs, and all sorts of other vacation-spoiling maladies. Perhaps that’s a myth; perhaps I just love the excuse to listen to the song.

Honorable Mentions: To inject a little more novelty into the proceedings, I must make note of the theme from the TV show Petticoat Junction and the train sequence from the opening of The Music Man. 

There are also the feel-good pop hits “Love Train” and “Peace Train” (Climb on board, y’all, and quit beatin’ the crap out of each other!).

Senior Center Specials: A couple of train standbys I sing at the senior living gigs are the wartime big-band hit “Sentimental Journey” and the 1924 blues standard by Richard M. Jones, “Trouble in Mind.” They also like to ask for “City of New Orleans,” but I never can remember all the words. Need to learn ‘em (or cheat).

Great Song Title: The Valentines’ “Woo Woo Train,” a doo-wop number from 1956 (my grandson would love that title)

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