Workin' on the Railroad
Banjo Connections -- by Jim Matthews

Apparently, whether we like it or not, we have made it into the "inner circle" of local railroad enthusiasts. We know that there's a traditional banjo connection with railroading, almost as strong as the connection with river boats. So one would expect that various railroad oriented organizations around town would occasionally ask us to play for them, as they have. Indeed, our April schedule shows a gig at the Railroad Museum on the 28th. But when major railroad companies themselves approach us recruiting full time employees --as Union Pacific has recently done-- that has to mean that we have "arrived."

I don't know who among us would be interested in a full time railroad job, but since we do come into contact with railroad oriented people from time to time, it might behoove us, as a group to maintain an awareness of our songs' railroad heritage. Here is some background on specific songs:

I'VE BEEN WORKIN' ON THE RAILROAD - This song began with the first railroad workers, either African American or Irish. That part about Dinah's horn comes from another song. Dinah was either a locomotive or a woman. I would say Dinah was a woman because locomotives of that day had whistles not horns. The horn was thought to be a call to lunch.

ALABAMA BOUND - This one is obvious. I do have one piece of advice about it however. When musically simulating a train whistle, we should use the proper signaling. The most common whistle signal used while a train is running at speed is for road or highway crossings, which consists of two long blasts followed by a short one, followed by an extra long one, to be held until the locomotive passes through the intersection. Sometimes this same sequence is used when a train is about to cross a bridge or enter a tunnel. Two blasts (long or short) are used when a train is standing still, about to move forward. Three blasts announces an intended backward move. A single long blast indicates that the train is about to slow down for a station. You can still hear trains using these signals today, however the advent of radio communications has made it less important for engineers to get these right. Some engineers follow them more strictly than others. These signals have traditionally been used on trains all around the world and their proper musical use will establish credibility with any mature railroad oriented audience.

WABASH CANNONBALL - The Wabash Railroad operated passenger trains bearing the name "Cannonball" over several routes, between cities as far west as Omaha and Kansas City and as far east as Detroit, but never to or from either ocean, as the song implies. The most recent Cannonball schedule was between Detroit and St. Louis. Eventually, the Wabash was absorbed by the Norfolk & Western Railroad, which in turn merged with the Southern Railway to form the present-day Norfolk Souther freight railroad. The Cannonball ceased operation when Amtrak chose not to incorporate it into its national rail passenger system. A very detailed story about the Wabash Cannonball recently appeared in the Peninsula Banjo Band Newsletter.

WON'T YOU COME HOME BILL BAILEY - Since the first railroads were built, all the way up to the present, railroaders have worked odd hours and been away from home a lot. This has put unique pressures on their families. This is one song about a breakman for the Baltimore & Ohio railroad whose family seems to be working through some domestic issues.

MY CUTIE'S DUE AT TWO TO TWO, and TOOT TOOT TOOTSIE - The completion of the first U.S. Transcontinental Railroad made it possible to travel all across the country by train. Railroads then made it possible for people to have expanded social lives.

IT'S ONLY A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN - Railroad lines were often delineators of economic/demographic neighborhoods. Here, the singer recalls his or her humble childhood circumstances by the railroad track.

TROLLEY/STREETCAR ORIENTED SONGS (i.e.: Coney Island Washboard or Clang Clang Clang goes the Trolley) might be appropriate because electric trolley cars became popular at about the same time as four string, jazz style banjos. Incidentally, the famous St. Charles Streetcar line in New Orleans is reportedly in not too bad of a shape after the hurricanes and floods. But there's no word yet when operation will resume.

Reprinted from the Sacrament Banjo Band Newsletter, April 2006, page 3.