Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Travelling hopefully

Some time ago, March 12th to be precise, Malcolm called in aid Steve Goodman's great song The City of New Orleans. He received a response from Clay Eals, who is publishing a biography of Goodman. It took a while for the penny to drop, but Malcolm later remembered handling (but not buying) an out-of-print copy of Eals's history of Seattle's West Side Story, in Seattle's best book-store, the rambling Elliott Bay Book Company. Eals has also written a biography of Karolyn Grimes, "Zuzu" in It's a Wonderful Life (cis-Atlanteans may not appreciate the significance that movie has in US Christmas television).

Richard Marcus, reviewing Eals for Blogcritics opined that City is
what I consider the best contemporary train song written, if not one of the best train songs period. Simple words that evoke a whole lot more then what appears on the page, spelling the end of an era. The airplane and people's desire to get from one place to another with no thought but the destination in mind was the death knell of train as a means of mass public transportation.
Malcolm would not wish to demur from that, particularly in US terms, but in a Judgement of Paris might suggest standing City up against (say) Ewan MacColl's Song of the Iron Road (from the Radio Ballad of John Axon, of course) or Gordon Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy.
For a moment Malcolm was about to toss in Flanders and Swann doing Slow Train; but that is really about railway stations, and the spot for best-railway-station song is already booked by Paul Simon's Homeward Bound.

Some years ago, the Mudcat Café had a thread on train songs which provides other suggestions.

City was, of course, one of the songs that went into space. It was used as the wake-up call for Apollo 17 on the morning of the last Moon-landing. Unfortunately, that was the Jimmy Thudplucker version.

[At this point, the archive elf hazarded a correction: that it was John Denver's version. Malcolm merely harrumphs, and mutters "Same difference".]

If City is "the best contemporary train song", that raises questions about other modes of transport. So, in the spirit of High Fidelity, Malcolm proposes his "desert-island, all-time, top" transport songs:
A 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, which is an English motorbike, sounds mythological and British people can relate to it. But I'm surprised that it has become such a popular song because it's a ballad with eight verses. I didn't think people had that much attention span anymore. 'Vincent' is my most requested song...
  • Best submarine song. Now, the expectant audience is chortling at Malcolm's imminent discomfort on this one. Ha! Cyril Tawney! Diesel and Shale! So rats to Lennon and McCartney.
  • Best bus song. Well, Transport of Delight (Flanders and Swann, again) is a runner; but Malcolm rates Jake Thackray's North Country Bus, if only because it reminds him of the late 1950s and CIE's service 66 (now Bus Eireann's 47 service) from Cork City to Schull (and, twice a week, on to Goleen). And also the service between Norwich and Watton, which (allegedly) was at the end of the 1960s still running to the schedule established in 1919.
  • Now the cruncher: best car song. The problem here is choice, and therefore we may have to return to this category with an elimination contest. For the moment, Malcolm has Kathy Mattea's 455 Rocket seeing off the competition on the line.
And is there a decent recent aircraft song? Dear God in Heaven! Could anyone conceive of a lyric about Heathrow Terminal 4?

So goodnight for him, and goodnight from bored elves. Sphere: Related Content


yourcousin said...

I often lament about the cultural illiteracy of today's youth, but I expect better from you.

To be honest I love Steve Goodman but your list of all time Train songs is sadly lacking. I mean Gordon Lightfoot, lets be serious. No mention of ole Woodie or Jimmy Rodgers! Maybe I'm just old fashioned like that but I was raised with all of them. Indeed I stole my first John Prine and Steve Goodman albums (respectfully) from my dad. At their best the sixties songs writers were pale imitations of their predecessors, though innovaters in their own right (yes I know thats a contradiction in and of itself).

Oh wait, I just reread the post and noticed that you mentioned "contemporary". My bad, but to call Gordon Lightfoot contemporary does date you by the way (though it still makes me laugh).

Now if you wanted to state that Steve wrote the ultimate country song I would agree (but only because David said so).

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Nice to hear again from you, cuz.

Yep; apologies for my chronic lack of taste. Actually I feel Lightfoot is a bit t-o-o-o recent for my tastes (which got formed in the early '60s).

A quick check says I have a fair chunk of Prine (nine albums show on the 320Gb Big Bastard).

The old iPod (4 yrs old and still churning) also has a rip of the Smithsonian/Folkways "Classic Railroad Songs" for moments when only authentic mono satisfies. Of course, Woodie, Cisco, Utah Phillips and the rest are also cranked up there if I need them: however, I try to vary things a bit.

Anyway, since you say John Cash fulfils all needs, who am I to disagree?

Now, "ultimate country song"? That needs a long thought and a second bottle.

Keep in touch!

yourcousin said...

Well I was going to nominate "Casey Jones the union scab" as all time best railroad song but being that I'm militant labor through and through I thought that might be a bit too partisan.

As for taste, well I wear overalls five days a week so I wouldn't be familiar with such things as taste (or tact for that matter).

As for "the ultimate country song". I suppose I need to restate
that one. It should have read "the perfect country and western song...".

Actually the John Prine thing. Whenever I think of John Prine now (even when I wrote the original comment) I involuntarily think back Magilligan Point bar near the prison and across the bay from Donegal where my fiance and I came in from being soaked and surly (well she was soaked and I was surly). We sat next to the fire and tried to dry out with a pint. The music I heard was familiar though I couldn't place it off of the top of my head. Then it dawned on me that we were listening to the John Prine Great Days anthology, disc two song three. I had never heard before outside of my truck or stereo at home. This point alone has endeared the Irish to me forever and always. Sorry that was a side tangent but for once I have a bit of time on my hands and felt like rambling.

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