In music: Trains as religious metaphor / or / This thread is bound for glory

The common cliche about trains is that they are a Freudian/Jungian symbol for sex.

In my experience, it’s more common that the train is a religious metaphor.

I was listening to Jimmy Dale Gilmour’s “Midnight Train” in the car the other day (a song that kicks so much butt I had to rewind it and relisten two more times). And in the same shuffle was Tom Waits’ “Down There by the Train”.

We all know that “this train is bound for glory”.

So here are my questions, which I hope can be answered here in Cafe Dope.

What are other songs in which trains serve as religious metaphor?

Is this a Christian, English-language phenomenon, or do trains serve as religious icons for other faiths and in other languages? Is it a primarily American phenomenon?

Why the connection? What’s behind it?

Thanks in advance for your contributions to satisfying my boundless curiosity.

The idea that you could get on a train, go North, and find all the opportunities to make it that you never had before. Trains appear throughout the blues as well, and the reason is the same since the blues and gospel share the same roots; they’re both African-American folk music.

Think I’ll put on Smokestack Lightning before I go to work. :cool:

Orphan train, sung by Lee Ann Womack, off of the album ‘something worth leaving behind.’ (Can’t check the liner notes just now for songwriter credits, sorry.)

It’s not ‘hit you over the head’ religious, which is common in recent country music, but clearly has christian overtones. Nice tune too. :slight_smile:

To elaborate a little more, the songs turned the real life phenomenon of hopping on the rails and getting around and the idea of going hundreds of miles North, especially Chicago, into a metaphor for being saved and leaving your earthly troubles behind. And in the blues I guess it’s not so much about leaving your ‘mortal woes’ so much as going somewhere else to escape them.

Trains per se have a solid place in the american mythological structure. Until fairly recently they were the means by which the poor and down-on-their-luck could relocate to better opportunities, places, etc.

Toss in the fact that those who HADN’T taken them could easily see them rolling on past in almost every city and town in the country past fields and factories and you have a powerful image. Even further that anyone who’s ever walked along rail tracks sees them going off into the horizon and they represent to many people the freedom of motion and new starts.

Powerful indeed and intimately connected with religion in rural america.

“People get ready
There’s a train a coming
Picking up passengers
coast to coast”

Ah, but where does this leave Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” then? I always heard that song as if it were about a doomsday train, with maybe the grim reaper himself driving the engine…

See also Rickie Lee Jones’ “Ghost Train” from Flying Cowboys for another example of the above.

Not to derail (unintentional pun) the thread, just curious as to where these would fit into the continuum. Or would they?

This Train certainly is a religious song; but the idea of trains is that they go places. They take you on a journey. In This Train, righteous people are being taken to ‘Glory’. (I have these images of the train plunging over a precipice. :smiley: ) Other trains take the narrator other places.

In Five-Hundred Miles, a someone has left his or her lover. The train takes him/her farther and farther away. (Lord, I’m one; Lord, I’m two; Lord I’m three; Lord, I’m four / Lord I’m five-hundred miles away from home) The gist is, ‘If you miss the train I’m on’, then I’m gone. Adios.’ So Five-Hundred Miles is a journey from loveless security to precarious freedom (Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name).

The City Of New Orleans is a journey of another kind. In it, a train called The City Of New Orleans is running from Chicago (I think, since it’s on the Illinois Central line) to (presumably) New Orleans. The song is a travellogue of America as seen from the tracks, and the disappearance of trains as the primary means of long-distance travel. (The trains The City Of New Orleans passes no longer have proud names, and the train’s ‘got the disappearin’ railroad blues’.)

Norther Line (hi, Opal! :smiley: ) is about a journey from nowhere to nowhere. The narrator is leaving a lover (I’m feeling no pain / Don’t care if I ever see your face again / And I won’t come back no matter what you say). S/he is ‘riding the rails’ after a bitter break-up’ lonely and drunk (I/m feeling no pain) and cold.

So while This Train is certainly has a positive revival-meeting joy, it seems to me that most of the train songs I’ve heard are about getting away from something or of seeing the past slipping away. The narrators seem to have been hurt somehow, and are travelling alone, unloved and penniless, much as we can imagine the hobos did back during the Depression.

We should get train-guy TheLoadedDog in here to comment! :wink:

That should be Northern Line, by Opal.

On Tom Waits’ Franks Wild Years, the train is the vehicle that takes Frank to Hell. He’s tempted by the New York life, and leaves on a train in Yesterday is Here. By the end of the album, on Train Song, his life has fallen apart, he’s trying to get home, but the train has broken down and he’s stuck in East Saint Louis.

Of course the ultimate “train as religious metaphor” song is Life’s Railway to Heaven.

Other examples: “Gospel Train” (can’t remember who first did it, but many have since) and the “Gone Dead Train” by King Solomon Hill (featuring outstanding acoustic bottleneck slide playing).

As to “Mystery Train”, I always thought it was a metaphor for the man who “took (his) baby and gone”. It was “long” and “black”, “sixteen coaches long”. The PG-rated interpretation would be that the man was really tall.

Slow Train Coming by Dylan

Long Black Train is a recent country song by Josh Turner where the train driven by the devil and tempting folks off the straight and narrow.

Then there’s that Stan Rogers song about the train where “the coffee bar serves only tea”–his idea of hell! :wink:

Spanish Train by Chris DeBurgh.

*There’s a Sspanish train that runs between
Guadalquivir and Old Seville,
And at dead of night the whistle blows,
And people hear she’s running still…

And then they hush their children back to sleep,
Lock the doors, upstairs they creep,
For it is said that the souls of the dead
Fill that train ten thousand deep!!*

In Folsom Prison Blues the train is a symbol of freedom:

Well if they freed me from this prison
and that railroad train was mine
I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay


Which seems to be a pretty consistent theme to associate with trains. My guess is that for a very long time they represented the chance to leave where you are from easily and cheaply. It was the only form of mass transit for a very long time, and that sort of thing captures the imagination, much like highways (Highway to Hell, Thunder Road, Route 66), airplanes (Leaving on a Jet Plane, The Letter, Fly with me), and boats (Come Sail Away, My Captain, In the Navy(sorta…)).

*There’s a golden moon
that shines up through the mist.
And I know your name
can be on that list.
There’s no eye for an eye.
There’s no tooth for a tooth.
I saw Judas Iscariot
carrying John Wilkes Booth.

He was down there by the train
down there by the train
down there by the train
down there by the train.
He was down there where the train… goes… slow.

I’ve never asked forgiveness.
I’ve never said a prayer.
Never given of myself.
Never truly cared.
I’ve left the ones who love me.
And I’m still raising Cain.
I’ve taken the low road.
And if you’ve done the same…

Meet me down there by the train
down there by the train
down there by the train
down there by the train
down there, where the train… goes… slow.*

Tom Waites
I’ve never lived where I could not hear trains where I sleep.
Sometimes in the night, as a boy, I would wake
and the world would be so silent I could hear my family breathing.
I don’t remember when I discovered that I had awakened
because the train had not come by.

Now, I still sometimes wake in the night
when the trains have not come.
And there is only the sound of one woman breathing beside me,
a woman who loves me despite where I have been
and the things she knows I can never tell her.
The smell of her skin is a redemption,
but I cannot tell her that either.

The children are sleeping in the other rooms.
And I hope they will never have to feel
the longing to escape that I did.
I lie awake in the silence, where I don’t have to pretend,
until the train comes, and all is again right with the world.

Oddly enough, though, the XTC song “Train Running Low on Soul Coal” is about psychological disintegration and has nothing to do with religion.

Well, when you get right down to it, sex and god and sanity are often 3 sides of the same coin. Reminds me of “Can’t You See”:

Gonna buy me a ticket
as far as I can
Ain’t never comin’ back.
Take me southbound
all the way to Georgia
till the train run out of track.
Can’t you see, can’t you see,
what that woman been doin’ to me.

And of course in the previous verse:

*I’m gonna take a freight train
down at the station.
I don’t care where it goes.
Gonna climb me a mountain,
the highest mountain, Lord.
Gonna jump off, nobody gonna know *

On the same record where Johnny Cash covers Waits’ “Down There by the Train”, he also sings his own composition “Let the Train Blow the Whistle”, again with the train as a metaphor for leaving this life for the next. Only Cash’s interpretation of the icon, while as gritty as Waits’, isn’t as hopeful:

On my old guitar sell tickets
so someone can finally pick it.
And tell the girls down at the Ritz
I said hello.
Tell the gossipers and liars
I will see them in the fires.
And let the train blow the whistle when I go.

And then there’s Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams:” rote stuff, I guess, but performed damn well…

This train
Carries saints and sinners
This train
Carries losers and winners
This Train
Carries whores and gamblers
This Train
Carries lost souls
This Train
Dreams will not be thwarted
This Train
Faith will be rewarded
This Train
Hear the steel wheels singin’
This Train
Bells of freedom ringin’
This Train
Carries broken-hearted
This Train
Thieves and sweet souls departed
This Train
Carries fools and kings
This Train
All aboard

This Train
Dreams will not be thwarted
This Train
Faith will be rewarded
This Train
Hear the steel wheels singin’
This Train
Bells of freedom ringin’

And the sheer unstoppability of a train in motion makes a great metaphor for being caught in any of those:

Hot Rails to Hell Blue Oyster Cult:

Tons of Steel Grateful Dead: