A love song to a diesel train
Published: Sat, 05/01/21
The first practical steam locomotive is considered to be the Rocket built by Robert Stephenson in 1829. The Rocket was by no means the first steam locomotive, but Stephenson’s design brought together several innovations which provided the template for evolving steam locomotive design over the next 150 years. The availability of effective steam locomotives made a railway network viable. By the 1850s as much of the UK as ever would be served by rail had a railway line and a local station. The American civil war was fought using the railways for troop movements and logistics. The post war development the ‘West’ was made possible by the expansion of the railway system.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the UK built a network of ‘Turnpikes’ or toll roads which enabled a huge coaching industry to develop. Ordinary people could travel around the country quite easily and an efficient postal service developed, all served by a network of inns, stables, and all the other services needed to maintain horses, carriages, and those who drove them. The coming of the railways swept away the coaching industry and enabled the development of the huge industrial conurbations we see today. Other parts of the country, not served by railways for geographical and economic reasons, were neglected and sometimes depopulated.
When I was born the Rocket was still only 130 years old and I remember seeing steam locomotives in regular service as a young child. The Beeching cuts followed during the 1960s and the rail network became a lot smaller. When I drive into Hull I can still see a converted station or a redundant iron bridge, the traces of railway lines which once passed through the city and out to destinations such as Hornsey where families would travel for a day by the seaside.
We still have a complex relationship with the railway. The project to build HS2 in the UK generates much opposition from those who believe it is too expensive and will cause far more environmental damage than will ever be justified. In J K Rowling’s Harry Potter Stories the journey to Hogwarts, the academy for aspiring wizards, begins on the Hogwarts Express departing from platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross, London. Platform 9 3/4 is invisible to muggles which is probably why you never noticed it.
I first discovered the song ‘City of New Orleans’ on a CD recorded by the wonderful Willy Nelson. Written by Steve Goodman and first recorded in 1971, City of New Orleans is a love song to a train and all those who serve the network of rail transport. City of New Orleans may just be the best country folk song that no one seems to have heard of, even though it has been covered by many very fine artists including Johnny Cash, Sheryl Crow, and a great rendition by the American Outlaws. My favourite cover is by Arlo Guthrie and someone has edited together some found footage to create a delightful video to accompany the music. When my little daughter gets distressed and needs to be soothed I just suggest that we watch the ‘song about the train’, then we watch it and I try and sing along (quietly so as not to spoil the occasion), and it always leaves us happier for having shared int the journey. We all need a song like this now and then
to lift the spirits. Here it is anyway https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fF1lqEQFVUo
PS The inspiration for doing this series of musically themed posts came to me last Saturday when I drove down to London to take part in the Freedom March. I had an idea of the songs I would include, but I didn’t know then quite where this journey would take me. The destination is clearer now and I will share tomorrow. Does this theme have anything to do with Stav? Lets just ponder on the importance of the skald, the bard, the troubadour, and story teller in all cultures. Are Karen, Barry, the Monkees, Stepenwolf, and Arlo worthy of those titles in our time too? Conclusion tomorrow.