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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chasing Trains (and a Sense of Belonging) with Son House, Charlie Patton, and the Country Blues

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 8:36 AM


I've come to understand that if you geek out over particle acceleration or cryobiology or creating special powders from a pig's bladder for the purpose of re-growing fingertips, then you're spared from ridicule as your infatuation largely benefits the species. However, if your thing is War of 1812 battle re-enactments or collecting pop culture detritus (check out this piece of work), or maybe science experiments in the name of MacGyver, then you're spending social functions on the periphery of conversation, nervously clicking your tongue as you count the bubbles in your beverage.

I mention all this because my 9-year-old son's passion ranks low on the Accepted Levels of Geekery scale. He's a train enthusiast or railfan. Or ferroequinologist, if you prefer classifications that make an endeavor seem wildly more arresting than it actually is. (Or anorak, a British term I champion, partly on account of it sounding marginally exotic, but chiefly because it was immortalized by a Sarah Records band.) My 9-year-old hasn't graduated to the truly fanatical exercises associated with railfans (jotting down train registration numbers in a notebook, photographing all the locomotives in a particular class, sipping tea from a flask, etc.), but is smitten enough to delight in what he's dubbed "train-chasing."

This activity is carried out during frequent jaunts to the White Mountains. Eighty years ago, railroad was the primary means of transportation to the region's resorts. It's avoided obsolescence in the age of the automobile. Today, you drive to the resorts, and then ride trains to savor the vibrant landscape that you largely ignored from your speeding car. The locomotives move slowly, allowing for proper rubber-necking; it also permits us train-chasers to properly observe from close-by, shoot ahead to a location further down the route, and then observe once more. (I play along since the term train-chasing evokes dusty, nervy, Old West hold-ups. We're not pursuing locomotives in a crumb-infested minivan, but instead, riding fleet-footed bays, drawing rifles from gun buckets, masking our outlaw glowers with bandanas. Yes, this is how fathers maintain a smidgen of their personal dignity: through artifice and illusion.)

While I escort my 9-year-old railfan from one viewing spot to the next, I play the country blues. (Except when we stop to watch. That's when I turn off the radio, open the car windows a crack. My son takes in the whine of the rotating wheels, the soft whoosh of the parting air, the grumble of the earth as this massive entity crawls up its back. This is music to his ears.)

I play the country blues partly because that's my geeky obsession (certainly geekier than being enamored with trains), but chiefly because the scratchy, stripped-down, archaic recordings are often rooted in restlessness and migration and the pursuit of that promised land -- a place where the streets are paved with the purest gold and the snow-white angels stand. I play them because, as Francis Davis wrote in The History of the Blues, "This is why the blues fascinates sociologists who otherwise have no ear for music: it provides a kind of soundtrack to the gradual urbanization of a once largely rural people." And the first wave of that exodus of Southern blacks to Northern cities -- the Great Migration, as it came to be known -- was dependent on trains, folks paying a week's salary or more to ride the Illinois Central to Chicago, where a job in a steel mill or a foundry or a stockyard or a meat-packing house hopefully awaited. I play them because Tommy Johnson sang in "Cool Drink of Water Blues," "I asked the conductor / Could I ride these blinds?" which is code for hopping a train with no ticket. I play them because of that moment -- one of many, certainly -- when Johnny Shines turned to fellow musician Robert Johnson, the most well-known country bluesman of them all, and said, "Robert, I hear a train; let's catch it."

I attempt to tickle my railfan's fancy by spinning songs such as: Ed Bell's "Frisco Whistle Blues"; Charley Patton's "Pea Vine Blues"; Blind Willie McTell's "Travelin' Blues"; Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues," a take on the legendary John Henry legend, the steel-driving man who used a sledge hammer to pound drills to make holes in rock, necessary in the construction of tunnels for railroad tracks; and the field recording of Son House playing "Walking Blues," which actually features a roaring locomotive in the background.

During our rides, my nine-year-old oscillates between mild interest and open ho-humness. "Who is this singing?" he asked from the backseat during our most recent train-chasing expedition.

"This is Skip James," I told him, pausing in between the first and last name to really emphasize the man's importance.

He snorted derisively. "Skip James sounds like a girl."

(Subtlety is not his strong suit. Then again, it wasn't James'.)

Re-Bop Records insists that even kids get the blues. I've witnessed a myriad of moments in which my children felt small and terrified, moments when what an adult considers inconsequential wrought catastrophe. One recent afternoon, I was late in picking up my 5-year-old from kindergarten. As I approached the schoolyard, I caught a glimpse of him standing alone, classmates scurrying past to waiting parents, his eyes frantically searching for me, his face a conflation of sadness and desperation. The image of him standing there poleaxed (you know, minus the Toy Story lunchbox and the apple tree crafted from construction paper) could have possibly been conjured out of thin air by a country blues song exploring themes of alienation, hopelessness, and hardship. Maybe his pose wasn't suggesting the blues, but at least an approximation of them.

And anyway, can individuals from my rather petted and feted corner of the world (read: white, middle class, the potential to drive just three minutes in any direction and hit a chain restaurant) take an analogous approach to listening to the country blues? I like to believe it's more about viewing these songs as beautifully worded auguries. "Blues made the terrors of the world easier to endure," Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train, "but blues also made those terrors more real." Country blues lyrics can serve as big, yellow caution flags regarding life's more uncomfortable moments. Like when I watch a movie with my squeamish 12-year-old and must warn, "Here comes a blood part."

It's always cute to hear that adolescent attachment to home expressed in simple, declarative sentences. "I'm never leaving here," my 9-year-old often says. "I'm always going to live here." However, one day life's train will pull up to the depot and whisk him away -- whisk all my kids away, in fact. It's one train I won't be permitted to chase. Until then, we'll geek out together in our own unaccepted ways. Fire up the Skip James.


Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to

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