Train a travellin. A forgotten masterpiece as the young Bob Dylan changes direction

By Tony Attwood

In 1962, having written “Hard Rain’s a gonna fall”, “Hollis Brown”, “Blowing in the Wind”, “Dont think twice” and in fact a grand total of 27 songs (and that really was in this year alone) Bob Dylan was still experimenting with different “voices”, different styles, different messages and different approaches.

Part of this experimentation, it seems to me, revolved around the resolution of the issue of  whether it was all going to be ok in the end, or not.

I’d hate to be you on that dreadful day announced that when the world ends and the Almighty returns, all sinners are going to burn for eternity.  So don’t worry too much about life being awful at the moment – if you are one of the good guys you will be fine after death.

Paths of Victory, the next song, was utterly different and told us the way was difficult but we’d get there in the end.  We really will make this a better place.

The gravel road is bumpy
It’s a hard road to ride
But there’s a clearer road a-waitin’
With the cinders on the side

That evening train was rollin’
The hummin’ of its wheels
My eyes they saw a better day
As I looked across the fields

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between two songs than those two polar opposites, and yet Bob managed to find a third, totally different route to travel with “Train A’Travelling”

For “Train A’ Travelling” – the next song he composed, still focuses on the evil around us, but now suggests that we can change the world if only we would rise up and protest.  This is a completely different notion from what has been sung before.  “Dreadful Day” doesn’t require any protest because after death all will be ok.  “Paths of Victory” doesn’t require any protest because “there’s a clearer road a-waitin”.

But now this next song that says “don’t follow leaders” because “That the person standin’ next to you just might be misled,” you have to sort it out yourselves and stand up for what you believe, because this world is rotten to the core.

The symbol of the train is of course one that Dylan loved to use through the years, and to my mind never more effectively than here where the train is society, our social system, our government… well, whatever you choose.

The character referred to in the song (as in “Then you know my voice and you heard my name”) is, I feel, not Dylan personally, but the symbol of all who stand up against the broken society that is all around.

Dylan really plays with the lyrics here is a way that I find stunning effective.   A “furnace full of fears” is a simple alliteration but if works perfectly in the context of the song.  (Trying to be too clever in a song never works; you can’t do all the clever stuff that poetry contains when there is music added, because the music controls the speed of delivery).

Dylan recorded three verses in the two versions of the song we have available, but he then added more for the Broadside publication,  And across these lyrics Dylan seems to me to put his message without preaching or demanding, and without falling back to the “it will all get better no matter whether you do something or not” approach of “Times they are a-changing”.

Lines such as

Do you ever get tired of the preachin’ sounds of fear
When they’re hammered at your head and pounded in your ear?

really have the impact (for me at least) of saying, it is time to get up and do something about what is going on around you.

In a real sense Dylan is taking on the position of the embodiment of the young, the people who have been left with all the mess of a society and economic system that the generation who survived the second world war have handed down to their children…

I’m a-wonderin’ if the leaders of the nations understand
This murder-minded world that they’re leavin’ in my hands

Out of these images the lines

Have you ever had it on your lips or said it in your head
That the person standin’ next to you just might be misled?

really do have a power because they are so simple.  Then, in the Broadside version we have the final verse that is not on the recordings that we have the all-conquering final verse

Do the kill-crazy bandits and the haters get you down?
Does the preachin’ and the politics spin your head around?
Does the burning of the buses give your heart a pain?
Then you’ve heard my voice a-singin’ and you know my name

Dylan knows his targets well, and he’s going to attack them with all he’s got.  This really is a composition in tune with the ending of Hard Rain…

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

I absolutely adore “Train A’Travelling” and it is sad that we don’t have a recording of Dylan singing the compete set of verses that he finally released to Broadside.  Nor come to that do we have any recordings by other people.

It is a song that a lot could be done with in terms of arrangements, but sadly no one has picked it up.

In its own way it is, for me, an absolutely powerful masterpiece in terms both of music and lyrics.

Here is the complete set of lyrics as sung on the recording (not as published on the official site) with the additional Broadside verses added in italics.

—–

There’s an iron train, there’s an iron train a-travelin’ been a-rollin’ through the years
With a firebox of hatred and a furnace full of fears
If you ever heard its sound or seen its blood-red broken frame
Then you know my voice and you heard my name

Have you ever stopped to wonder ’bout the hatred that it holds?
Have you ever seen its passengers, its crazy mixed-up souls?
Did you ever start a-thinkin’ that you gotta stop that train?
Then you know my voice and you heard my name

Do you ever get tired of the preachin’ sounds of fear
When they’re hammered at your head and pounded in your ear?
Have you ever asked about it and not been answered plain?
Then you heard my voice a-singin’ and you know my name

I’m a-wonderin’ if the leaders of the nations understand
This murder-minded world that they’re leavin’ in my hands
Have you ever laid awake at night and wondered ’bout the same?
Then you’ve heard my voice a-singin’ and you know my name

Have you ever had it on your lips or said it in your head
That the person standin’ next to you just might be misled?
Have you ever looked around and been confused at what you’ve seen?
Then you’ve know my voice and you heard my name

Do the kill-crazy bandits and the haters get you down?
Does the preachin’ and the politics spin your head around?
Does the burning of the buses give your heart a pain?
Then you’ve heard my voice a-singin’ and you know my name

—–

A second recording (almost identical but in a different key) of the song, again without the additional verses appears on “Broadside Ballads Vol 6 – Broadside Reuion” (which also contains the recording of “Dreadful Day”) and was released in 1972.  The LP was re-released as a CD in 2007 in the USA.   I haven’t seen it released in the UK, but it is available on Spotify.

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

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