The day of the swift and pleasant train ride is almost gone, for many bad reasons, and with it the sense of wonder and joy that Americans used to feel about trains. Our children must find it very quaint, especially after a trip on a “modern” commuter train, that anyone was ever moved to write a song about railroad travel. Imagine an ode to the subway or to the Long Island Railroad! Yet in the fine old days half a century and more ago, when the rails were bright and smooth and long and you could glide from New York to Omaha ensconced in greater luxury than you enjoyed at home, the railroad was a prime inspiration for American songwriters.
Everybody rode the trains, and every family had a piano: for home entertainment, too, had not yet been contemporized into glazed, prepackaged, pretaped uniformity. The result was a steady tintinabulation of railroad songs from Tin Pan Alley. Some were simply paeans, like Silver Palace Car (opposite), which couldn’t quite get over the marvels of the Pullman (Jonah Woodruff was one of the early promoters of deluxe sleeping-car appointments). Some glorified one of the great folk heroes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the engineer, and rang the changes on his risks and tribulations—the famous Casey Jones being the archetype of this species. Some were unabashedly sentimental, using the trains as a dramatic setting for tears and heartthrobs. And of course some were humorous, playing musical games with a town’s name or squeezing entertainment out of a set of familiar trademarks in a hymn to American commerce.
Actually, as anyone over thirty knows, railroad songs lasted as long as mass train travel did, and our title, above, is a tribute to two of the popular train songs of World War II. Whatever their period, they were all one efflorescence of the romance of trains, another highly popular branch of which was the railroad suspense movie—from The Great Train Robbery (1903) through masterpieces like Shanghai Express and The Lady Vanishes.
We offer here some nostalgic samples of old railroad sheet music, represented mainly by their evocative covers but including snatches of music and lyrics so that you can try them on your old upright, if it’s still standing. (We got a bit carried away by In the Baggage Coach Ahead, on pages 44 and 45, and could not refrain from rendering the whole lugubrious waltz.) Our thanks are due to Mr. Lester S. Levy, of Pikesville, Maryland, from whose unparalleled collection of early American music all these good things come.