I posted some train songs earlier, as I do from time to time. The train song may be the perfect folk song genre. Trains bring you to your baby; they get you away from your baby; they take you to the Promised Land (let’s just call it the Big Rock Candy Mountain); trains ushered in the industrial age, but in doing so, they created legends like John Henry, who fought the modern world and won, even though it killed him. Outlaws rob trains; heros drive trains (sometimes too fast, leading to a whole sub-genre of train-wreck songs).
Trains represent hope for a future, the opening up of the west and all that jazz. They also tell us a story of unbridled ambition and exploitation. And, they tell the stories of the traveling nation, hobos, tramps and bums, riding the rods, railroading across the Great Divide.
When U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest, recorded Daddy What’s a Train in the early 70s, he was lamenting an America that no longer needed the train, not the way it used to anyway, and he was sad because a whole generation didn’t know what it was they lost.
My family has a tie to railroad history in Canada. Grandpa – that’s my dad’s dad – came up to Canada from Chicago, to Montreal and then Toronto. He opened the Queen’s City Leatherworks in the early 20s when my dad was a boy, and he made gloves for the rail workers in the Junction (a rail town, amalgamated into Toronto in 1909…it was such a rowdy place that alcohol was prohibited, and it remained dry until 1998), a business which would persist into the mid-60s, long after the heyday of the train in Toronto. We just called it the Glove Shop. It was a place to live and a place to work. It was a way of life.
I had a pair of Grandpa’s one-finger gloves when I was a boy. My dad gave them to me and told me they were the toughest gloves ever made. They were like mittens but with one finger to give a rail worker the perfect combination of warmth and utility. They flared out half-way up my forearm, and I can tell you they were warm and they were tough. I loved them because they came from Grandpa’s glove-shop.
One day dad brought home two surprises for me – a spool of the tough thread they used to sew gloves at the Queen’s City Leatherworks – and a kite. The spool was one of those industrial-sized spools. Dad said it held a mile of thread. He said son, let’s go fly this kite out of sight. And we did too.
When Grandpa Lou wasn’t making gloves, he was making violins. In my books that makes him a super-hero. He taught that trade to my Uncle Gene, after whom I was named. My father was more of a rounder. He took up sax and clarinet and horse-betting and poker. He’d say son, just remember, poker is a game of skill and don’t let anyone tell you any different.
So many of the stories I was raised on, all my father’s wonderful crazy stories, were tied to the Junction and the trains and the Queen’s City Leatherworks. Maybe that’s why when I hear Hank Snow singing about a train it transports me back to my youth. By the time I was 6 or 7 years old, I knew all the words to the Wreck of the Ol’ 97, and I’ve never forgotten them.
Dad taught me a lot of important things about the world we live in. There are two Hanks, he’d tell me, Snow and Williams, and Snow is the important one.