You Can Hear the Whistle Blow a Hundred Miles
Awhile back I speculated that trains were perhaps the single most common subject of American folksong. The more I wander through my record collection, the more convinced I become.
The railroad played a major part in my youth, although I never realized it until I moved out on my own. I grew up along the tracks of the B&O. As a young boy I walked the path along the tracks to visit friends. We would often meet up on the tracks to get to our favorite fishing or swimming holes on the river. In high school I often walked the tracks to school rather than riding the school bus. At the age of fourteen I got my first job in town and the tracks were once again my path, this time to and from work.
My childhood home sat just past a sharp curve in the tracks where the trains had to slow just enough that a young boy could run along and grab hold. As the trains approached town they slowed once again, and I could make my jump before I reached the trestle over the river.
With the money I earned on that first job I bought a bicycle and my freight hopping days were over. I still used the right-of-way along the tracks to ride my bicycle to and from town; it was only six miles along the tracks, but nearly ten by road.
I’m not sure that trains are THE most sung-about subject in all of American folksong, but it sure seems to be in a large part of my collection. Perhaps I have subconsciously collected more songs about trains than other subjects. There is no doubt, though, that trains have played an important roll in the folksongs of North America.