I Often Dream of Trains

Trains and cars and planes, as Bacharach and David might have put it, though that would perhaps sounded a little less romantic than the actual line. So after Heathrow airport and the M62, the train. The train journey and the railway station have long been part of the language of songs. The record that sparked off the skiffle era in Britain, which in turn provided the catalyst for the Beatles and the other early sixties groups-Rock Island Line – was about a train and recent comments on this blog have pointed out just how many train songs there have been. Many have titles and lyrics that shimmer with the promise of adventure and exotic travel: Marrakesh Express, Trans-Europe Express, This Train Will Be Taking No Passengers. I did, however, experience a tinge of disappointment in reading that the last train of the day from L.A to Georgia leaves at 2.30pm and that leaving on the midnight train would never really be feasible.

As with driving songs, however, songs about trains show a difference in the American and British perspective. The American genre tends to be in the spirit of car songs, heading off west to unexplored territory with the spirit of independence "Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance”, sang Paul Simon, calling to mind the travel writer Paul Theroux’s comment: “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”

There are far fewer songs in the English version of this genre and the perspectives tend to be different. As with motorways, there isn’t the physical space to imagine an expanding frontier so trains and stations have come to symbolise something else in songs. In part, they mean departure, the train pulling out and loss. UB 40’s She Caught the Train (‘They said she'd take the train ,I ran to catch the train, Oh my, the train is gone’) or The Sundays’ Cry (‘I’m standing on a platform, Now I’m staring from a train’). However, in England they can also signify a journey that is less about entering physical space and more about another dimension-the past, real or mythical. The age of the steam train and all it signified in terms of a different picture of England hangs heavy still, decades after it passed away, which is why The Railway Children became such an iconic film for some people.

The song here, I Often Dream of Trains by Robyn Hitchcock, picks up on this idea of trains as metaphor, mixed up with some semi-Freudian analysis of a relationship. It is from his 1984 album of the same name, which also included another set of musings on transport from days past, Trams of Old London (‘Trams of Old London, taking my baby into the past...on a clear night you can see where the rails used to be’). Robyn Hitchcock was/is something of an acquired taste. Some of his work is very reminiscent of the post-Pink Floyd Syd Barrett, though perhaps more self-conscious, with an eccentric, surreal, at times whimsical, Englishness also found in artists like Viv Stanshall of the Bonzos.

I Often Dream of Trains is a characteristically odd mix of the banal and poetic imagination. There is the image of a train beside a frozen lake and summer turning to winter overnight, painting a rather dream-like and stark landscape suddenly brought down with a bump to the destinations of Reading and Basingstoke, presumably picked for the ordinariness. I once lived in Reading –judged at one time as the most average town in Britain - for four years and had several train journeys to it, none of which I have ever dreamed about. I also once saw a TV interview with Pete Staples of The Troggs, who hailed from Basingstoke’s neighbouring town of Andover. He remarked something like ‘There was a lot going on in Andover. It wasn’t like, well, Basingstoke.’

The surreal bit about this is that the train journey in the real world here doesn’t exist either. Hitchcock has described it as “a kind of imaginary route in my head that goes from Southampton to Oxford. I don't think it ever really existed, but I often find myself on it, in a very old railway carriage,” It’s the sort of train journey that might well go through Adlestrop-the station of Edward Thomas’s famous poem of the same name-as well as Basingstoke. Trains, particularly in England, can sometimes retain the romance of travel longer when they stay in the imagination.

Link to song


  1. Oh Geoff, I share your disappointment - there really should be a midnight train arriving in Georgia! What a wonderful column, and it's strange but as an American I have a much more romantic visions of British trains - in my head the English countryside looks just like this! - http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3103/3159582117_12175c0ed8.jpg :)

  2. Yes, keep it like that, Desiree! The Settle-Carlisle route is like that. But this is Basingstoke station

  3. Oh no, that Basingstoke one isn't how I pictured it at all:) But then maybe English people think of American trains like this - http://photos.igougo.com/images/p68375-Durango-Silverton_Train.jpg - and the only ones I've ever been on here look more like the Basingstoke one - like this one in the Bronx: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3407/3340038674_9b39a358b8.jpg

  4. What a great column! I also thought of City of New Orleans (Arlo Guthrie), King Of The Road (Roger Miller), Long Train Runnin' (Doobie Brothers), Midnight Train (Journey), Midnight Train To Georgia (Gladys Knight & the Pips), Morning Train (Nine To Five) (Sheena Easton).

  5. Geoff, I'm sure you know all these, but here are 50 more songs about trains!!

    1. Train From Kansas City Neko Case
    2. Train Trek Robert Earl Keen
    3. That Train Don't Stop Here Los Lobos
    4. Train Uncle Tupelo
    5. Train Of Love Neil Young And Crazy Horse
    6. Train #2 Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
    7. Slow Train Through Georgia Norman Blake
    8. Train Wreck Sarah Mclachlan
    9. Casey Jones Grateful Dead
    10. Slow Train Dylan & The Dead
    11. Train Song Tom Waits
    12. Train Hoppin' Hot Sauce Johnson
    13. Locomotive Breath Jethro Tull
    14. Engine Driver The Decemberists
    15. Train Whistle Blues Doc Watson
    16. Train I Ride The Dead Milkmen
    17. Marrakesh Express Crosby, Stills & Nash
    18. Take That Train Interfearence
    19. Night Train Dirty Dozen Brass Band
    20. Train In Vain The Clash
    21. Broken Train Beck
    22. Train Fare Home Muddy Waters
    23. Freight Train Jerry Garcia/david Grisman
    24. Train Kept A Rolling The Yardbirds
    25. Mr. Engineer J.d. Crowe
    26. Train Train Billy Bragg
    27. This Train Don't Stop Here Anymore Elton John
    28. Train Box Set
    29. Chattanooga Choo Choo Guy Van Duser
    30. One After 909 The Beatles
    31. Train In The Distance Paul Simon
    32. Lonesome Train Whistle Reverend Horton Heat
    33. The Train Bobby Mcferrin
    34. Runaway Train Soul Asylum
    35. Seminole Coal Train Blues Old Tallahassee
    36. Counting Train Cars Widespread Panic
    37. Take The "a" Train Charles Mingus
    38. Train Song Flying Burrito Brothers
    39. Blue Train Johnny Cash
    40. Freight Train Boogie Doc Watson
    41. Peace Train Cat Stevens
    42. Love Train The O'jays
    43. Crazy Train Ozzy Osbourne
    44. Freight Train Blues Roy Acuff
    45. Boxcar Blues Boxcar Willie
    46. They Don't Write Songs About Trains... Artese N Toad
    47. Train Train
    48. Train 45 Ralph Stanley
    49. C&NW Railroad Blues New Lost City Ramblers
    50. Locomotive Thelonious Monk

  6. Geoff, thanks for this delicious column! I am obsessive locomotomusicophile and probably have too much time on my hands, but I found your column and wanted to give you my own list in case you enjoy reading it - it is here: http://www.thespoon.com/trainhop/songs.html

  7. Thanks for this column Geoff! I wanted to mention the early American railroad-flavoured songs, which are nowadays largely forgotten, but here is a group of titles: The Shuffling Chant, Tie Tamping Chant and Steel Laying Holler, all of them with a railway construction flavour; F.L. Martyn, Standing on the Platform (1870); Henry C. Work [best known for his Grandfather's Clock], Continental Railroad Chorus, Crossing the Grand Sierras, for soloists, chorus and piano duet (1870); George D. Chester, The Railroad Accident at Richmond Switch, Rhode Island ( 1873); T. Stephenson, The Gospel Railroad (1873); a chorus by one Diethelm, The Patent Railway Punch (1874); Sam Devere's Riding on the Elevated Railroad (1878) and T.B. Kelly's similarly titled song of 1879; W.S. Mullaly, The Railroad Conductors (1881); Gussie Davis's In the Baggage-coach Ahead (1895); Max Drefu, At the Sound of the Signal Bell (1898); Lucy Schief, Does This Railroad Lead to Heaven? (1902); Charlie Tillman, The Railroad Song (1906); Ed Bimbert, The Railroad Rag (1911); Bess Rudisill The Eight O'Clock Rush; Leo Edwards, There's Lots of Stations on my Railroad Track (1912), Clay Smith, Ragtime Engineer (1912) and, last but not least, Irving Berlin's San Francisco Bound.

  8. Geoff, I had never thought about the modern iterations of the railways songs in British music. For me, railroad songs in Britain were only jazz/swing/dance band and pop numbers, like The Blue Train aired by many British bands in 1927 among them Debroy Somers, Ronnie Munro and the Kit Band, the Henry Hall number Santa Claus Express, Joe Loss's When Your Train Has Gone and Night Train, This is the Way the Puff-Puff Goes (1928), there's a Body on the Line (Jack Payne, 1935), The 7.15 to Dreamland Morning Train (1944), Takin' the Train Out (1945), recorded for Regal Zonophone but apparently not issued, played by Teddy Foster and his band with vocals by Betty Kent, Jack Hylton's Choo-Choo based on Trumbauer's (see above), Ted Heath's Night Train to Scotland, Streamline Street from the Six Swingers. And then I suppose the 1960s hit Doing the Loco-Motion and the well-remembered Beatles' hit Ticket to Ride which I also know in a brass band version by Alan Fernie. The Pasadenas' Riding On A Train reached the Top Twenty in September 1988.

  9. Yes, I agree with Jackie, I had never really thought that railway songs survived into the modern era - I associate them entirely in England with the music-hall era, like George LeBrunn's music-hall ditty Oh Mr Porter! from around 1890 and long associated with Marie Lloyd (who also sang the even more suggestive She'd Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before) and given fresh life in recent years with a fresh lyric as the title music of the BBC TV sit-com Oh Dr Beeching! (fragmentary incidental music for some of the episode was derived from the same tune with Ray Moore given the credit for this). Also by LeBrunn was another song very popular in Victorian times entitled The Railway Guard (at least two other similarly styled songs were also published, notably Alfred Plumpton's The Railway Guard, or The Mail Train to the North, dedicated to the Chairman and Directors of the LNWR and having especially amusing lyrics. Railway songs seemed to me, as a British person, part of the era of the end-of-the-pier show, Ovaltine, Golliwogs, Watch With Mother, Sunny Jim, and Punch and Judy. You know, when things looked like this:
    and this:

    So, thank you for dragging my visual imagery out of its odd nostalgia!!

  10. I had forgotten about the Pasadenas! I guess the others you mention were all in the era of steam trains. Re the Beatles one, I've always wanted to get on a bus on the Isle of Wight and say, 'I want a ticket to Ryde' !
    Thanks for the other suggestions. Thats a brilliant list, Wes. The one by Al Stewart is a potted history of the railway, taking in the Russian Revoltion and WW2!

  11. Geoff, I thought you might like to know about my musical, Joan of Kent: The British Railway Musical, from 1990, which focused on protests that greeted British Rail's plan to build a high speed railway through Kent, linking the Channel Tunnel with London. There is more information here: http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~henrylewis/joan.html

  12. I do think that railways are the key motif for British nostalgia. I remember Finchley Central from 1969 and the lament Dear Old Stalybridge Station from the 1970s, nostalgic songs both. The Beeching closures of the sixties and seventies provided more nostalgic material, for example the majority of the set of twelve very enjoyable folk-style songs sung and recorded by Brett Stevens, himself a one-time railway employee, and composed by Dave Goulder, which were collectively titled Green All the Way; a few of them are amusing, notably Pinwherry Dip, but most are tinged with sadness. But surely the most famous song associated with railway closures is The Slow Train, lyrics by Michael Flanders, music by Donald Swann:-

    No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortehoe
    On the slow train from Midsomer Norton and Munby Road
    No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat
    At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street
    We won't be meeting you
    On the slow train …

  13. Nice piece and analysis...and another Robyn Hitchcock song that effectively uses train imagery and metaphors is "You and Oblivion," with these melancholy lines about travel and passages and partings in life:

    "Right when the death train got your ma
    Right when the death train got my pa
    Let slip your hand on the platform
    Said 'I must be going, yeah'
    'See you'
    'See you'..."

  14. It's interesting too to remember that the connection between music and railways has another angle - not only songs about train journeys, but the prominent presence of bands in and around the railway industry. Railwaymen have themselves made music, in the same way that throughout most of recorded history working men in all industries have done so. Doncaster had from in 1856 a Doncaster Plant Works Band, a brass ensemble. By 1860 there existed a GNR Glee and Madrigal Society based at King's Cross. Also, a band was usually present, often to play Handel's See the Conquering Hero, when a line was opened and one often accompanied early railway excursions, including Thomas Cook's famous outing in 1840 from Loughborough to Leicester.

  15. And then there is the music at railway stations. I have experienced this, at Doncaster railway station at Christmas. The National Railway Museum has from time to time staged concerts of railway music; one, in the 1980s, was recorded on cassette and another, in 1996, celebrated the inauguration of the Institute of Railway Studies in York. And then there is music on trains themselves, like pianos being standard equipment on the Trans-Siberian and other long-distance railways - a pianist is employed in the restaurant car of the Eastern and Oriental Express which runs between Bangkok and Singapore. Less exotically trains plying between Sheffield and Huddersfield via Penistone regularly have live music as a feature - folk, jazz and other.

  16. Thats an interesting point about music on trains-I suppose it's like the pianos that some airplanes apparently used to have. It's all part of the trains/nostalgia link, I guess.
    The music made by train workers wouldnt apply to air or car travel somehow!

  17. I should probably be a bigger fan of the music of Robyn Hitchcock than I am, but I simply have trouble fully getting into his music. He's just too quirky and inconsistant for me. I was never a fan of The Soft Boys, his first post-punk/psychedelic-punk group, so I have no nostalgia for his early work. And it seems that every time he puts out something that catches my interest, he follows up with something that I can't stand, putting me back to Square One with him once again. But if you don't know it, I do recommend the acoustic duet between Hitchcock and Michael Stipe of R.E.M., called "Dark Green Energy".

  18. Geoff, perhaps you might be interested in Robyn's benefit show at the Union Chapel in London on October 24: http://www.unionchapel.org.uk/events.php?gig=117af00c-4a94-4859-b318-87d3e49187b9. Thanks for the great writing!

  19. I love Robyn. I was seized by him the very first time I saw him. It was on the great concert show, Reverb. He, dressed in his black and white polka dot shirt, was performing Freeze, so magnetic and odd. I was mesmerized by the way he sort of sprung or flung his fingers onto the fret board to play the notes like a praying mantis attack. Thanks Geoff!

  20. In case people don't know, Robyn is also an artist - here are some of his pieces - very surreal! - http://www.robynhitchcock.com/art/

  21. Geoff, you would also maybe like his "Adoration of the City," which is one of those songs you've written about before, that speaks about the idea of an urban space in general, without getting specific. It has the same gentle sarcasm as the train song above......

  22. What is interesting as well is that the Donegan song “Rock Island Line” was a version of the Leadbelly song about a train that ran from Chicago to New Orleans, so even as it launches a major skiffle revival in England, it is an American sound.

  23. I feel terrible for being this dense, but what IS the actual line that is more romantic than "trains and cars and planes" by Bacharach and David - that you open your column by describing? Sorry to be so stupid, I've tried googling it but no joy!

  24. Geoff, please make sure you DO get on a bus on the Isle of Wight and say "I want a ticket to Ryde" - that is one of those things that really should happen!:) Very funny.

  25. I didn't know about the poem Geoff mentioned so went and found it - here it is below for anyone who is interested:


    by Edward Thomas

    Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
    The name, because one afternoon
    Of heat the express-train drew up there
    Unwontedly. It was late June.

    The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
    No one left and no one came
    On the bare platform. What I saw
    Was Adlestrop—only the name

    And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
    And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
    No whit less still and lonely fair
    Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

    And for that minute a blackbird sang
    Close by, and round him, mistier,
    Farther and farther, all the birds
    Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

  26. I love this column and thought you'd be interested in this article I found from earlier this year -

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1253414/Trainspotters-collection-old-railway-posters-set-sell-1million.html -

    apparently a collection of old railway posters was sold for £1 million! The real value of this article link is that it includes lots of examples of these posters, which really illustrate your point Geoff about English trains signifying "a journey that is less about entering physical space and more about another dimension-the past, real or mythical. The age of the steam train and all it signified in terms of a different picture of England hangs heavy still".

  27. Hey J.J, 'trains and boats and planes are passing by, they mean a trip to Paris or Rome' (Dionne Warwick-cover version by Billy J Kramer)

  28. Yes, those posters are exactly it, Kyle-they capture the whole nostalgia thing of trains.

  29. I think this question of nostalgia is fascinating - and it's amazing to me that throughout the UK there is a revival of the glory days of railroading - a big business in nostalgia that takes place along abandoned rights-of-way on branch lines to nowhere, using refurbished 19th and early 20th century steam locomotives. Complete with gift shops, museums and even a pub here and there. The Chosley & Wallingford Railway, the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway, the Vale of Rheidol Railway, and the Strathspey Steam Railway. There are apparently more than of 100 of these lines, trying to steam back in time to the 1890s or the 1950s (and being used in the Harry Potter movies, "Brideshead Revisited" and "The Railway Children" that Geoff mentioned). Millions of people ride these trains each year. I just find it fascinating, this nostalgic impulse - but wonder if it is all mainly aimed at tourists, seeking an image of Britain they recognise from films, or actual locals, seeking a real Britain that really did used to exist before it was destroyed. I suppose I wonder, then, whether this is a nostalgia for a non-existent past, on the part of tourists who have seen television shows and films, or a vanished past, on the part of locals who miss the old days. There is probably no way to know! Anyway, thanks as always for prompting so much thought, Geoff.

  30. Enjoyed the column. It doesn't surprise me to learn that there are so many songs about trains - there probably isn’t much that is more British and steeped in history, heritage and culture, that has had such an impact on the world, than the railway. The sheer childish excitement I still get from riding on a train, is hard to explain. It is a deep memory (false or not, seeing as I am not old enough to remember steam trains in running in real life!) that is etched in the British psyche; the “chuff, chuff, chuff” of the steam being forcibly blown out of the stack, the regular “clackety, clack” of the wheels running over the joins in the rails – it is simply mesmerising as an image.

  31. Thats an interesting thought Tiffanye. I suppose there was a time when the sort of nostalgia image we have now of trains did actually exist in real life and when stations like Adlestrop were there. Before the Beeching cuts closed a lot of branch line down, I guess. However I think now its all muddled up with a idealised view of Britain as people like to think it was.

  32. I was/am a trainspotter. This song made me remember cisiting sheds in the sixties, around north-east England, Percy Main, both Blyth sheds, Gateshead, Tyne Dock and further away from Tyneside, then Sunday bike rides to the sheds at Farnley Junction,Copley Hill,Holbeck,and Neville Hill. I also spent many hours either flitting between Eastgate and Central stations over that long foot bridge or patrolling Horton Road crossing near the gas-works watching Castles and Halls, Granges and Manors roll in from right to left and Patriots, Jubilees, Black fives and the occasional rebuilt Royal Scot cross from left to right as the GW and Midland lines crossed each other into the respective stations. Nothing can beat the smell of steam and hot oil, the noise, the dirt, the raw power of a big steam engine, your duffel bag. They were innocent, glorious years when railways were still an integral part of our everyday lives. Nowadays, if I try to go trainspotting, I can't go about my business without fear of being suspected as a terrorist on a recce mission.

  33. I don't think nostalgia is entirely limited to Britain. I was in Germany and taped this steam train leaving a station, while German tourists watched in awe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RB5iQX4xXdI (you should start it at 6.40 mins). Right around the 6.45 min mark, you see a really potent symbol of nostalgia. A whitehaired old gentleman is leaning out of our train, watching the train go by. He watches it depart, leaning out to look backwards at it as it goes by, then shuts his window. It spoke to me of what nostalgia really is: looking backwards while closing off the view of the real world - either the past as it truly was or the present now.

  34. That is a really powerful image on the film clip.

  35. I honestly think Americans are just as nostalgic about the railroad - seeing it as a symbol of a more innocent, hopeful time. There's a whole industry of railroad music compilation albums, some whole albums focused on particularly famous incidents in railroad history. I own a whole album of Johnny Cash songs about railroading, for example - given to me by a wellmeaning aunt for Christmas. It includes these songs below and has this quote on the cover: "There's nothing that stirs my imagination like the sound of a steam locomotive--that lonesome whistle cutting through the night and that column of black smoke and steam throwing shadows across the land. When I was a boy the trains ran past my house and they carried with them the promise that somewhere down the track anything would be possible."

    * Ridin' the Rails
    * Tom Thumb
    * Collage of Yesterday
    * The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down
    * The Legend of John Henry's Hammer
    * Shave and a Hot Bath
    * Train Robbers
    * Satirical Aire
    * Casey Jones
    * Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy
    * Doesn't Anybody Know My Name
    * City of New Orleans
    * The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore
    * These Hands

  36. I think there is a whole other group of songs into which this one fits, too - songs about dreamed places, or songs about dreaming of particular places. It might be quite a small category, but I think it is one. I thought of Dream Of A Place by Spooky Monkey, A Place Called Home by Kim Richey, and Dream City by Free Energy.

  37. I think another film that perpetuated the nostalgic imagery through steam trains was Chariots of Fire. Lots of jolly chaps in cricket jumpers climbing onto steam trains with old leather suitcases waving at their rosy cheeked mothers as they headed off to Cambridge and the train blew its whistle. Etc.