Riding the Rails
Banjo Connections -- by Jim Matthews

I was disappointed to learn that we would not be playing on the museum trains at this year’s Jazz Jubilee. But this disappointment was offset by the opportunity to view Paul and Carolynn Smith’s beautiful back-yard garden railroad in operation on the previous Sunday. I would like to build one like it, if I ever get the time.

Paul and Carolynn ‘s outdoor “G Scale” trains are a little larger than most model trains, and tracks are designed for outdoor use. They grow miniature trees and bushes near the track, to help keep everything in scale with the trains. Being outside, they have to deal with floods, washouts, wind, and weed abatement --just like real railroads.

I can’t really explain my life-long obsession with trains. Although I like my current “day job” with the California Department of Health Services, I must say that I really miss working for the railroad, as I did before acquisition by Union Pacific ended my fifteen-year career with Southern Pacific. Actually, Union Pacific had designs on the Southern Pacific and its Central Pacific forerunner ever since they were linked together at Promontory, Utah to form the first U.S. transcontinental railroad in 1869. In 1900, one E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific managed to buy controlling interests in Southern Pacific. But then President Theodore Roosevelt (the “Trust Buster”), had problems with this arrangement, and, under the Sherman Anti- Trust Act, a court order told Mr. Harriman to basically “get your grubby little fingers off of the Southern Pacific.” But, almost one hundred years later during the era of de-regulation, Union Pacific finally got what it wanted, and it cost me my job. I guess persistence pays off.

In an effort to stay involved with railroading, I am now researching some possible alternative ways to help preserve the historical banjo connection with trains. When researching such connections, terminology issues become apparent. It seems like railroaders never call anything the same thing that everyone else does. For example, I remember, when we had them, that a caboose might have been referred to as the shack, hack, waycar, crummy, or doghouse, but we would never call it a caboose. And to a railroader, the word “banjo” could mean a lot of things, including a short-handled shovel or the wig-wag device common on older crossing signals. But in spite of such semantics, there is evidence of real banjos around early railroads. We know that substantial numbers of railroad workers were Irish immigrants, and we know that these Irish enjoyed banjos. Although “workin’ on the railroad” has become synonymous with “strummin’ on the ol’ banjo,” it might be fair to question how these early railroaders played their banjos. In the days before automatic couplers, it was difficult for a brakeman or switchman to get through his career with all his fingers. Perhaps this is how some odd-ball tunings have come about.

Since the 1920’s, when banjos were largely replaced by the more mellow tones of the guitar, song writers and performers who road the rails in some capacity still tended to use banjos. Although not banjoists themselves, Jimmy Rogers, Woody Guthrie, and even Johnny Cash had banjo accompaniment much of the time.

And one of the most enjoyable jam sessions that I participated in was on the 1950’s era club car Royal Gorge on a special excursion down the Pacific Coast line to Los Angeles.

Reprinted from the Sacrament Banjo Band Newsletter, June 2005, page 2.