0 items(s)

Popular Music

Iron Road


steaming into popyular music

The railway has a long and close relationship with popular music – possibly more so than any other industry. This would be attributed to the ‘romance’ of the railways in taking loved ones on long voyages, men off to war, reuniting loved ones etc. So many songs have been written about train travel and in just about every musical genre.

Here’s a very short list of train and rail songs that were popular in Australia:

  • Casey Jones
  • Mystery Train (Junior Parker) and Elvis
  • Train Yodel – Jimmy Rodgers
  • Hold dat Train!
  • Honky Tonk Blues (Ernest Tubb)
  • Chattanooga Choo Choo (Harry Warren) Glenn Miller
  • Rock Island Line – Lead belly
  • Morningtown Ride – The Seekers
  • Southern Aurora – The Joyboys
  • MTA – Kingston Trio
  • Freight Train – (Elizabeth Cotton)
  • Peace Train – Cat Stevens
  • Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin) inspired by train sounds
  • City of New Orleans
  • Finicula Finniculi

Robert Paling composed The Railway Waltz in 1855 for the grand opening of the Sydney to Parramatta line. This was one of the earliest dance compositions for railway, even before Strauss composed his Vienna Rail Waltz (1857).

Trains also featured in early feature films and film serials. The villain (hiss) always seemed to want to tie the poor innocent, young, attractive girl to the railway line. How they got there was usually never explained. The serials, especially thrillers like early ‘Spiderman’ also favoured trains and many the suspenseful serial ended its weekly showing at the stage when the train was about to be:

  1. blown up
  2. derailed
  3. attacked by Red Indians
  4. dynamited as it went over the bridge or
  5. smashed head into another train.

These were exciting times for a youngster who had hardly been on a train. Later trains became the setting for a more romantic approach with films like Dr Zhivago and Some Like It Hot. Then there were the mystery films like Murder on the Orient Express and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Trains in cinema could be attacked by Indians, held up by robbers (especially Mexicans), blown up and, more recently, in Batman Returns, it becomes a runaway.

The 2004 Children’s Christmas film, The Polar Express features Tom Hanks as a genial guard and, in 2005, The Hogwart’s Express steamed into another Harry Potter adventure. Trains still capture our imagination.

The early days of Australian country music were heavily influenced by railway songs and our leading performers included them in their repertoire. There were two reasons for this popularity and both were related to the influence of so-called Country & Western music and especially as portrayed in 1930/40’s Hollywood films. The image of the smoking, fast approaching train was used in Westerns, city films and, of course, in cartoons.

The image of the young woman (or man) tied to the track by the nasty villain resulted in hissing from the captivated audience. Cinerama also showed rail footage as the cinema audience swayed in their seats.



Victorian Parlour Songs

Then came the craze for Victorian Parlour Room songs – mostly comic Irish songs like ‘Are You Right There, Michael, Are You Right?‘ or Joe Slater’s, 1906 hit, ‘Man in the Signal Box‘ and that hugely popular tear jerker ‘The Luggage Van Aheadas later adapted and popularised by Tex Morton.:

Country Music

This brings us to Country Music – the railway’s best musical friend.
Much of the early recordings of Australian country music featured train songs. On radio, especially the 1940s and early 50’s, the ‘live studio” singers were introduced with train sound effects.

Here is a list I prepared of pioneer country artists and their first train songs:

Tex Morton
Recordings Regal Zonophone 78s:

  • On the Gundagai Line 1936
  • The Railway Bum 1937
  • Sergeant Small 1938 then banned as the notorious policeman took legal action – only a handful of discs were sold.
  • Travel By Train 1939 (also original song)
  • Freight Train Blues 1940
  • In The luggage Van Ahead 1941

Rodeo 78s:

  • Waiting for a Train 1949
  • Wabash Cannonball 1949
  • Railroad Boomer 1954

Buddy Williams
Recordings Regal Zonophone 78s:

  • Wingie The Railway Cop 1941

Smilin’ Billy Blinkhorn
Recordings Regal Zonophone 78s:

  • Wreck of the Old 97. 1939 (Can’t you take it back and get a boy?)

Slim Dusty
Recordings Regal Zonophone 78s

  • Train Whistle Blues 1963

Later recordings included

  • Last Train to Nowhere
  • Album Glory Bound Train – gospel

Tim McNamara
Rodeo records

  • Second song he recorded was Down By The Railroad Track

The country songs all had a relationship to our folk tradition because of the timeframe and how we used songs as popular entertainment. Tex wasn’t the only one who changed the words of American songs to suit the local lingo and environment.

Dance crazes continued to use train themes – J C Williamson’s ‘1920’s hit ‘Meet Me At The Station Down in Dixieland’ and the 1917 Tivoli Follies hit ‘All Aboard The Ragtime Train’.

Classical composers also romanticised train travel including Eugene Goosens, Percy Grainger and George Dreyfus. I could mention trains songs in jazz and the folk revival and, of course, the rockabilly, b5lues, western swing and a zillion other musical expressions as we caught the Chattangooga Choo Choo, The Rock Island Line, The Freight Train, The A Train, The Honky Tonk, The Peace Train, the Finicula and even Elvis on the Mystery Train. Our first big instrumental hit was the Joy Boys and Southern Aurora.

It was the ‘folk’ who gave us the real emotional link with rail because of the nature of traditional and anonymous song. They sang about navvies, train drivers competing as in Billy Sheahan, songs about union struggles, soldiers getting trains, swaggies hopping trains, songs about railway refreshment rooms and songs about the people who worked on the trains. These songs are still being written and still being sung.