A staple of many genres of music, particularly folk and country, for decades now, the train seems to hold a mythical place in the imagination. Home of boxcars, hobos, hardworking men, and loads of accidents, songs have sprung up around the good and bad side of trains and the people who use them. So here we’ve got a selection, from songs about men building American railroads to getting stuck in the Boston subway system.
The Seldom Scene – City of New Orleans (Steve Goodman)
A song made popular by Arlo Guthrie, this take strips it back to banjo bluegrass pickin’.
Everything but the Girl – Downtown Train (Tom Waits)
Rod Stewart had a huge hit with an 80’s-tastic cover of this one, soiling it forever in most people’s minds. However, Everything keeps the pop core and takes away the production, leaving a song sounding not like either Rod or Tom had done it.
Raul Malo of the Mavericks – Downbound Train (Bruce Springsteen)
Not to be confused with the previous song. This guy’s voice is perfect for this song, taking a similar approach to the original, but doing it better.
Bob Dylan – Train of Love (Johnny Cash)
Cash had championed Dylan from back in his days in the Greenwich Village coffee houses, and in a tribute concert in ’99 Bob paid thanks to his mentor in a stirring rendition that may be one of his best live performances ever. Watch the video, featuring the backing vocals of Larry Campbell.
Johnny Cash – I’ve Been Working on the Railroad (Trad.)
A song from way back in the 19th century (maybe earlier), I used to have a recording on one of my children’s songs cassettes. Too bad it wasn’t this one; I might have musically matured faster.
Lost and Found – Locomotive Breath (Jethro Tull)
Lots of bad covers of this one it turns out, into which category some of you may think this falls. I love these guys though, a Christian rock duo that plays “speedwood”. Like speed metal, but with acoustic guitar and piano. Don’t do many covers, and notice on this one they have to edit a line to make it more moral.
Joan Baez – Railroad Bill (Trad.)
A version from live in ’63, it sounds like most other Baez songs. Pretty acoustic plucking, high wavering voice, and beautiful all around.
Jackie Martino – Last Train to Clarksville (The Monkees)
Updating this one for the thoughtful singer/songwriter generation, with plenty of organ.
The Kingston Trio – The MTA Song (Steiner/Hawes)
You probably all know it, but it’s a classic so I gotta include it. I couldn’t find any covers that weren’t just ripping off the Trio’s version, so we’ll go with that.