Canadian Railway Songs
“Trestle Bridge” painted by William Hobbs. Used with permission
If you ask most Canadians about their favourite railway song, many will scratch their heads and say, “Do we have any?” A few might mention Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” while others may dredge up old standards like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Slim pickings, it seems. This appears to be even more true when set beside the extensive canon of railroad songs from the United States, many of which have become standards, not only down south, but here too: 500 Miles, City of New Orleans, Wreck of the Old 97, John Henry, Wabash Cannonball, Freight Train and so on. So the question becomes whether this apparent difference between Canada and the United States represents a “real” difference between our two cultures or whether there is something else going on. The position I take is that there is an equally rich trove of railway songs in Canada, and that differences, if there are any, relate to Canada’s perpetual shyness, or what some call our cultural inferiority complex. Put differently, I suggest that there is a rich tradition of music making about the Canadian railway. However, it has not attained same the degree of public awareness as in America.
What follows is preliminary-the beginning of a longer term project. I solicit any suggestions, references, contacts-whatever-that might help.
There is one difference between ourselves and the U.S. that warrants comment. Since the 19th century, the preferred term in the United States has been “railroad,” while in Britain, it is “railway.” (Cohen, 1981, p. 4). My discussions with railroad people, both workers and “fanners,” has confirmed that the term “railroad” is seen as a flag to signal American influence and “railway” has become the preferred term in Canada. Merely a semantic difference, I suppose, but a significant marker of difference nonetheless.
Historically, there is also another difference that warrants mention. One of the major reasons why Sir John A. MacDonald promoted the Canadian Pacific Railway as strongly as he did, circa 1880, was to combat American expansionism. Whether this involved arguing for an all-Canadian route over the top of Lake Superior, or to woo British Columbia into the union, the Canadian railway was, in part, a product of fear that Canada would be absorbed by the U.S. Here’s some rhetoric of the time that suggests this fear was not unfounded:
That the U.S. are bound finally to absorb all the world and the rest of mankind, every well-regulated American mind is prepared to admit. When the fever is on our people do not seem to know when and where to stop, but to keep on swallowing, so long as there is anything in reach. (Daily Alta California, Feb 3, 1869)
It would seem that the development of railways in both countries was driven by differing motivations: expansionism in the U.S., protectionism in Canada. It is unclear, but nonetheless an interesting question, whether these particular differences have any discernable impact on song making in each country.
It’s worth noting that the idea of a railway song is not a simple as we might think. To be sure, there are unquestioned exemplars: e.g., The CPR Line, The Fireman’s Lament, Wreck of the Evening Mail. But what about songs that mention railways only peripherally? For example, should songs celebrating the exploits of Bill Miner be considered railway songs, simply because he chose to rob trains? On this topic, I follow Norm Cohen, the dean of American railroad song research, and take a rather liberal view of this, accepting songs whose mention of the railway is “more than just casual” (Norm Cohen(1981) Long Steel Rail Urbana Il: University of Illinois Press, p. 40).
I should be clear to indicate that I am not going to suggest that I’ve discovered a vibrant tradition of song making and performance within the occupational group of railway workers. I’m not proposing the discovery of a lumber camp shanty in the caboose; rich with songs, throbbing with excitement about each performance. The nature of railway work precludes this possibility, as does the fact that the few studies of railway workers indicate that their tastes in songs are no different from any other group with the same social background (see Cohen, 1981, p. 41). Rather, what I’m dealing with here are songs with significant railway content, without making any claims about their consensus or popularity within the railroad worker occupational group.
Forgetting for the moment fine-grained distinctions between traditional and commercial, and simply looking at the canon of material that deals with the Canadian railway, we find a surprising number. I’ve recently begun assembling these and have almost 600 in hand (click here to see the list). This compliments James Hay’s website that provides a growing list of many of these. This material is impressive, not only in number, but also in the breadth of railway themes it treats.
The themes that emerge in this list are:
Categories of Canadian railway songs
About specific trains (e.g., Newfoundland Express, Kettle Valley Line)
About specific events (e.g., The Coquihalla Slide, Train Wreck at Almonte)
Nostalgia (e.g, E&N Won’t Run Here Any More, Our Island’s Lament, Painting Over the NAR)
About specific places (e.g., Myra’s Majesty, Sixteen Miles to Seven Lakes)
Building the railway (e.g, CPR Line, Demon Fire Carriage Road)
Instrumental pieces (e.g., some waltzes, gavottes and marches from the turn of the 19th century)
Hobos (e.g, Hobo’s Song to the Mounties, Canadian Hobo’s Lullaby)
Railway men (e.g., Section men, The Fireman’s Lament)
About specific individuals (e.g., Bill Miner’s Jailbreak, The Padre)
This category scheme is not definitive in any sense of the word, but does give us glimpse of the main aspects of the railway that have attracted Canadian composers’ attention. Hardly an impoverished tradition of song making, I’d say.
The range of music uncovered so far is eaually impressive. These include:
Country music from the mid-1930s through to the present
Folk songs from the 1960’s revival through to contemporary singer songwriters
Traditional songs (e.g., The Bonavist’ Line)
Choral arrangements (e.g., Algoma Central)
Dance tunes (e.g., CPR Lancers)
Documentaries (e.g., Festival Express)
Film soundtracks (e.g., the Railrodder)
Instrumental pieces (e.g., Double Green)
Musical theatre (e.g., Bistro Car on the CNR)
Orchestral pieces (e.g., Les gros chars)
Piano study pieces (e.g., All Aboard the Octave Train)
Radio programs (e.g., the Great Nanton Train Robbery)
Recitations with music (e.g., The Broadway Car)
Sheet music (e.g., Boys of the Old Troop Train)
It’s hard not to be impressed with the extent to which train music has found it’s way into Canadian musicways. And I have a sense that I’ve only scratched the surface.
Indeed, the more I look, the more songs I find, leaving me with the suspicion that there’s an unending trove of songs out there, just waiting to be documented. An example of this is the Kettle Valley Line, a now-defunct railway that ran through the heart of British Columbia from Midway to Hope. I was looking into a song entitled “The Kettle Valley Line” written by Ean Hay and recorded by Stan Triggs. Without a whole lot of work I found fifteen more songs dealing explicitly with that line, and another ten related to it. Part of this was due the presence of a revival group called the Kettle Valley Brakemen, but I found one of these songs in Calgary and am presently tracking down several more about which I’ve heard rumours. In other words, the seeming lack of Canadian railway songs appears to be a matter of perception, based, perhaps, on a lack of research, rather than any cultural difference between ourselves and the United States. Everything I’ve encountered so far tells me there is a lively tradition of railway song making out there-not represented in the mainstream, but thriving in small pubs, clubs, kitchens and self-recorded CDs.
Very few of these songs are “traditional” in, if you will, the traditional sense. Exceptions include a majority of the “Building the railway” songs (e.g., CPR Line, Drill ye Tarriers, Railroad Boy) and several others (e.g., The Newfoundland Express). The vast majority are composed, authors known, and developed for performance to an audience unknown to the performer.
This is especially true of railway songs found in country music, which, as far as I know, have not been systematically surveyed. It’s my impression that a fine-grained look at Canadian country music will add substantially to the size of this collection. Hank Snow issued three albums with railway themes. One or two of the songs on these have Canadian content (e.g., “Canadian Pacific”). The remainder, however, are American. Wilf Carter, despite his interest in hobos, did not address the railway very much in his overall repertoire. Stompin’ Tom Connors, Stevadore Steve and Gordon Lightfoot have penned a fair number of relevant songs and, more recently, Patricia Conroy, Prairie Oyster and Fred Eaglesmith have done the same. Equally important, I believe, are the legions of lesser-known country music artists, beginning in ’30s, who may have taken on the railway from a Canadian perspective: e.g., Edison Williams, Slim Rogers, Stu Phillips, Alberta Slim, and many, many more. I hope to explore these over the next while, expecting to find a goodly number of relevant songs. Any hints, suggestions or recommendations about how I might proceed would be most welcome.
Looking at the list of songs I have in hand reveals that the railway has, indeed, captured the imagination of Canadian anglo song writers. As we might expect, the iron horse has become an important icon in the minds of these folks and in the works they produce.
In summary, then, I hope I’ve been able to persuade you of the presence of a viable canon of anglo songs about the Canadian railway. The numbers of songs and the breadth of themes, all speak to a vital and lively tradition. While few these have migrated into mainstream consciousness, there seems little doubt that there is a rich trove of songs “out there” and, equally importantly, I expect there are many more waiting to be heard. Whether the differences in entering the mainstream between the United States and Canada relate to the expansionist/protectionist contrast is a matter for future work. For now, the important point is to get the research done and see what is “waiting out there.” I solicit any feedback, comments, and songs/tunes you might care to add to this emerging project.