From time to time I receive a piece of media that I didn’t specifically request to review. Whether or not I review such items depends on my availability and interest. At the moment, my schedule is pretty packed, and I’ve never been particularly fascinated by trains, so I didn’t think I’d crack Spencer Vignes’s recent book The Train Kept A-Rollin’: How the Train Song Changed the Face of Popular Music. Then I started thumbing through it. “Mystery Train”. “Waterloos Sunset”. “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”. “Last Train to Clarksville”. “Midnight Special”. “White Room”. “The Locomotion”. “The Last of the Steam Powered Trains”. “Folsom Prison Blues”. The book’s title song. Huh. As it turns out, a lot of my favorite songs deal with trains, which got me wondering why so many great songs are train-centric. So I decided to take Vignes’s ride.
As it turns out, there’s no definitive answer to the essential question The Train Kept A-Rollin’ raises. Trains are mysterious because they whisk our loved ones off to undisclosed destinations. Musicians dig trains because trains take them to gigs or serve as quiet places to write songs. Poor blues and folk artists found work on railway lines. Several British pop artists have engaged in the UK tradition of trainspotting. All are posed as possible reasons the train is second only to the car as the preferred pop conveyance.
This lack of a definitive conclusion is natural considering that Vignes does so little editorializing and consults such a wide variety of sources to break through the mystique of train songs. The author’s interviewees are just as much of an enticement to read The Train Kept A-Rollin’ as the songs he discusses are. Ray Davies, “Clarksville” so-writer Bobby Hart, Ian Anderson, T.V. Smith, Robyn Hitchcock, Bryan Ferry, Chris Difford, and “White Room” co-writer Pete Brown make up a small sampling of the brains Vignes picks. The author also doesn’t limit his pages to train songs. He dallies with train-themed album covers, music videos, on-stage films, and model train collectors in the pop world.
Yet the absence of a few of my personal favorite train songs that would have brought a few more angles to the story—particularly The Beach Boys “Cabin-Essence”, which could have introduced a few paragraphs on how railroads disrupted the American landscape and The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away”, which addresses the less savory things that might take place on trains—left me feeling as though The Train Kept A-Rollin’ still isn’t quite the ultimate train-song book. Nevertheless, the book chugs out a long-enough line of great songs and artists to satisfy both train freaks and train-ambivalent freaks such as myself.