Monday, February 21, 2011

Freight Train, Freight Train

I’ve been wanting so long to get a good picture – or any picture – of one of the freight trains that run through what seems to be the border separating downtown from the heights. Either I do not have my camera with me when I spot one rolling through, or I have my camera and the tracks are empty. The latter has been more common. I don’t know where to get a schedule so I can nab a pix. In this are of terrorism I reckon that CSX isn’t of a mind to publicize their freight train schedule, especially if they are carrying hazardous material. Which I do not know if they are or not, I’m just speculating here, the point being it’s not an easy picture to get and more than once I’ve had the camera with me and seen the train but by the time I caught up to it was away on down the tracks.

The other morning, the stars had aligned and I was close and saw the train and I started to run after it, past Division Street on Newark, behind the field in back of the Fire House there, underneath the abandoned trellises. There it was, the iron horse, in all its utilitarian glory. Rarely do you get this close to a moving train. No fence or barrier or any kind. I got as close as I could. What an exhilarating experience. The sheer weight of the movement, slow and steady, steel leviathan, made by man.

Fuel Cars, Box cars, some of the sides were tagged by brave graffiti artists. Chugging, squeaking, sure I flashed on that great train movie earlier this year, Unstoppable.

I thought about how the tracks and the cars of the train and the freight carried by the cars in the train connect America, united us still just as they attempted to do following the civil war. Every freight yard in the country can be gotten to from any other freight yard. Tracks connect to tracks. The route may not be direct – in fact its circuitous nature is part of its splendor – but you ride that train you ride America. Good Lord, I was tempted, to hop the freight car and ride to the Hobo Jungle.


by Elizabeth Cotton

Freight train, Freight train, run so fast

Freight train, Freight train, run so fast

Please don't tell what train I'm on

They won't know what route I've gone

When I am dead and in my grave

No more good times here I crave

Place the stones at my head and feet

Tell them all that I've gone to sleep.

When I die, Lorde, bury me deep

Way down on old Chestnut street

Then I can hear old Number 9

As she comes rolling by.What an awesome song this.

Some say she was the greatest guitar player that every lived and if you have heard the smithsonian folkways release you probably agree. Trains give her the escape she desires, and she dreams that when she dies the trains will give her the salvation. Didn’t need to get all allegorical like Freedom Train, This Train, People Get Ready. She was singing about Freight Trains.

Roy Acuff saw a much darker side of the freight train, though still sought escape in his Freight Train Blues

I was born in dixie in a boomer’s shack,

Just a little old shanty by a railroad track,

The hummin’ of the drivers was my lullaby,

And a freight train whistle taught me how to cry.

I’ve got the freight train blues, lordy, lordy, lordy,Got ’em in the bottom of my ramblin’ shoes,

And when that whistle blows, I’ve gotta go,

oh! lordy! guess I’m never gonna lose,

The mean old freight train blues.

now my pappy was a fireman and my mammy dear,

Was the only daughter of an engineer,

My sister married a brakeman and it ain’t no joke,

Now it’s a shame the way she keeps a good man broke.

I’ve got the freight train blues, lordy, lordy, lordy,

Got ’em in the bottom of my ramblin’ shoes,And when the whistle blows,

I’ve gotta go, oh! lordy! guess I’m never gonna lose,

The mean old freight train blues.

This narrator was born into a rail road family. For the potential madness read La Bete Humaine. Bruce Springsteen also viewed the nightmare invoked by freight trains in a this vivid couplet from I’m on Fire
At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet
And a freight train running through the middle of my head
But Bruce didn’t see beyond the metaphor, in this song at least.

The freight train demanded respect. It is deliberate, pragmatic, what it brings we need. If you have a chance, try to get as close you can and just behold.

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