Various Artists: Classic Railroad Songs from Smithsonian Folkways

Classic Railroad Songs understands that, even today, when rail travel is nearly obsolete and we can communicate internationally by clicking a button, trains hold a powerful place in the American conscience. Trains represent freedom and independence and the possibility of an adventure. Trains are the sadness of a lonely whistle in the middle of the night, and the excitement of a passionate kiss on a crowded platform.

Sometimes we forget that humanity didn't begin with cell phones and iPods and TiVo. People in the 19th century were just as captivated by technology, romance, tragedy, humor, joy, sadness, society, politics, and religion as we are today. The music on this collection deals with nearly everything that happens between birth and death, and it manages to do it all in the context of trains.

One thing we share with our ancestors is a fascination with disasters, and this CD is like the 19th century version of a disaster movie. You've got trains crashing into each other, trains going off the tracks, passengers getting mutilated and dying by the dozens, engineers getting mauled when they're supposed to get married... this is some gory stuff. If you remember the train wreck in the movie Unbreakable, well... this CD is like that. Except without Bruce Willis as an immortal superhero.

Of course, this music is about more than just train crashes. There's the awe-struck wonder of amazing machines, the sadness of a child lost at war, the pain of a job that was as likely to kill you as pay you, the class struggle between a wealthy man's daughter and the impoverished men who existed outside her windows, and the humorous look at an engineer who had a wife in every town on the Denver and Rio Grande line.

Humor and joy are a big part of this music. Many of the saddest songs on the CD are accompanied by uplifting music, an acknowledgment that sadness and joy co-exist in life. This art has been neglected by modern artists like Metallica, Taking Back Sunday and Jay-Z, whose songs are almost always a one-dimensional expression of emotion. But the songs on Classic Railroad Songs are not afraid to see the seeds of joy that exist in every moment of pain, and vice versa.

Music: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5 (Last 4-5 tracks of EPFL version won't play)
Like most compilations from Smithsonian Folkways, the music is exceptional. Some of it is very difficult to listen to, especially for those of us who like our music to come from fancy studios where everything is overdubbed and underflubbed and moneygrubbed. But it doesn't matter whether or not this music is difficult, because it's worth hearing. This CD is not just educational (for instance, I never knew that Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Midnight Special" was originally written in Sugarland Prison in Texas, and was recorded by multiple prisoners in the South before Lead Belly's recording became the definitive version), but it is a link to the passions that drove our ancestors -- and drive us. There's not a song on here that should be skipped (which is very frustrating, considering that the EPFL's version of the disc is damaged), and there are several that have as much energy and life as the best music being recorded today.

Packaging: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The design isn't particularly special, but it's effective. The text is easy to read, and it's nice that the designers didn't get caught up in trying to use decorative typefaces or eye-catching layouts. Given the amount of content that's in the booklet, function over form was the right way to go. The text is broken up by photos, but there aren't any captions to describe the context or relevance of the images. Given that the music is about trains and the booklet is a miniature history lesson, it would've been nice to see at least some basic descriptions of each picture.

Listen if you like: Bob Dylan, Josh Ritter, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs. (They're not on here, but their roots are.) Also, listen if you like freedom, independence, adventures, lonely whistles in the middle of the night, passionate kisses on train platforms, and sitting in stations until it's your turn to get on and ride.

If it were food, it'd be: served in the dining car as the world races past the windows.


Anonymous said...

Hey. Just wanted to let you know that I enjoy reading your blog, and just put a link to it on the library's myspace page (http://www.myspace.com/prattlibrary ). And, you make my day by saying some good things about some of the CD's that I ordered for the library! Sincerely, A Pratt Librarian.

taotechuck said...

Hey, A.P. Librarian, thanks for the comment and the link! The music you're ordering is helping me appreciate music in an entirely new and different way, so thank you! Keep up the good work, and please pass my good thoughts on to all of your co-workers.