Train Songs

Wife and I couldn’t sleep last night, we were all excited about getting to sign our tax returns and pay the IRS some money. We were trying to sleep, but kept asking Siri to play stuff on Apple music, which isn’t as bad as it sounds, since Siri knows how to Airplay to Sonos. After half an hour of discussing how us boomers that remember the Beatles starting the British Invasion when we were about 10 grew up with better music than all of the young people now that mostly get explicit urban music or country music product.

After a few trips down memory lane, I asked Siri to play “The Train They Call the City of New Orleans”, and pretty soon Arlo was on singing Steve Goodman’s masterpiece. I’ve heard a lot of train songs in my day, but none are better than this. I’ve never ridden that train, but I have ridden other overnighters on North to South routes. Lots of people don’t seem to realize that this is an actual train. When I took Amtrack in to Philly from Lancaster and then waiting for the Keystone back home, I’d often see the big information board.
This is how it typically looks, but once a day in each direction, there appears the legend “City of New Orleans”.
No other song captures the spirit.

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passing trains that have no name
And freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Good morning America, how are you
Say, don’t you know me, I’m your native son
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Dealing card games with the old men in the club car
Penny a point, ain’t no one keeping score
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor
And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel
And mothers with their babes asleep
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Half way home, we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea
But all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rail still ain’t heard the news
The conductor sings his songs again
The passengers will please refrain
This train got the disappearing railroad blues


Here’s another train song - or at least one about an Australian town where the train no longer stopped. It’s worth posting because it’s a great song, from a favorite album, and because you can’t beat a line like “The train smokes down the xylophone.”

Well it’s hotter 'n blazes and all the long faces
There’ll be no oasis for a dry local grazier
There’ll be no refreshment for a thirsty jackaroo
From Melbourne to Adelaide on the overlander
With newfangled buffet cars and faster locomotives
The train stopped in Serviceton less and less often

No, there’s nothing sadder than a town with no cheer
Vic Rail decided the canteen was no longer necessary there
No spirits, no bilgewater and eighty dry locals
And the high noon sun beats a hundred and four
There’s a hummingbird trapped in a closed-down shoe store

This tiny Victorian rhubarb
Kept the watering hole open for sixty-five years
Now it’s boilin’ in a miserable March twenty-first
Wrapped the hills in the blanket of Patterson’s curse
The train smokes down the xylophone, there’ll be no stopping here
All you can be is thirsty in a town with no cheer

No Bourbon, no Branchwater, though the townspeople here
Fought her Vic Rail decree tooth and nail
Now it’s boilin’ in a miserable March twenty-first
Wrapped the hills in a blanket of Patterson’s curse
The train smokes down the xylophone, there’ll be no stopping here
All ya can be is thirsty in a town with no cheer


Know those tunes well and remember those times. Remember the ‘Band’, “The Night the Drove Old Dixie Down”.

Virgil Caine finds himself out of a job after Stoneman’s cavalry tears up the tracks of the “Danville train,” meaning the Richmond & Danville system. Southern railroads were central to the drama of the Civil War. The Confederacy made quite effective use of its internal rail network, but these railroads became key targets of Union generals like Stoneman and Sherman, who left the twisted wreckage of rails and ties in the wake of their marches. The song unfortunately flirts with Lost Cause mythologies about the Confederacy in its focus on the white Southern experience — at the same time Virgil trudged home, African Americans across the South were celebrating emancipation and the arrival of northern troops. But Virgil’s story is still representative of the personal struggles faced by Confederate veterans. Virgil turns his back on the railroad and heads home to “work the land,” but in the decades after the war, railroads became even more essential to the South. In the 1880s, the Southern network doubled in mileage, and these new railroads became a cornerstone to the image of a New South reborn from the ashes of war

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I’m working on a train song playlist to post here. The problem is quantity. There are so many, and with so many styles. Some are old, others new, and there’s jazz, rock, and folk. When you get to a Big Band classic, like Chattanooga Choo Choo, there are so many covers. I put the standard Glenn Miller version, but my favorite, so far, is the Oscar Peterson.

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Kundalini Express by Love and Rockets:

A weird mix of post-punk UK music and a mystical religious train ride metaphor (e.g., enlightenment). The lyrics always made me laugh.

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A couple more from my library…


That’s when I pull out my LP’s, at least most are not over re-mastered.

Like Arlo Guthrie released a popular train song the previous year: “City Of New Orleans.” Both songs mention the Illinois Central train in the lyrics.

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I’d throw in any version of “Night Train” (especially James Brown’s) and “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” from “The Harvey Girls.”


Since @pennstac mentioned him above, Oscar Peterson’s version of Night Train is lovely (I know, not a song, sorry!). It’s my favorite album of his:

I go through the LPs, and the cover of this one is great. The song isn’t bad either.

Now which train song has the best authentic train sounds, as heard through your preferred headphones?


Tom Waits also wrote/recorded the first version of Downtown Train before Rod Stewart turned it into a mega-hit. Original here:

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A wonderful one — thanks. He’s one of those great players I need to be reminded of now and then. Ah.

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Just gonna leave this here.


I never understood what this song had to do with trains:

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Uhh… Cause it’s the Clash? Hehehe

Really obscure for this band:

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Answered my own question:

It’s about visiting a girlfriend by train and being sent away. Took the train in vain.

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Curiosity got the better of me and I’m glad it did! Great thread.

Here’s my “Train song” addition:
Stop that Train (B-Boy Bouillabaisse) - Beastie Boys

Not as sample rich as the rest of PB, but plenty of great references in the lyrics:


Not sure how to share a playlist on ROON. I have shared clicked on, and it’s called “train songs”
Apparently because it is on Tidal, I can’t export…?
Anyway, I have 17 train songs. Not sure you want it as a screen grab.

You can’t on Roon, but can from Tidal’s software.