Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You (1969) part 4: The cadence of click-clack

by Jochen Markhorst

I can hear that whistle blowin’
I see that stationmaster, too
If there’s a poor boy on the street
Then let him have my seat
’Cause tonight I’ll be staying here with you

It would be going way too far to call Udo Lindenberg the German Bob Dylan, but still. His status, for starters, is quite comparable. Roughly speaking, Udo has since the beginning of the twenty-first century the same stature in Germany as Dylan has in the rest of the world: respected in all corners of cultural circles, beyond criticism, living legend. The old rocker (he was born in 1946) also has been in the front trenches for half a century now, shook up the German music scene with his Panik Orchester, is an accomplished painter (his works hang in museums and even in the Bundeskanzleramt, the German Chancellery), he writes books and for five decades, right up until 2021, his records have been topping the charts.

More relevant similarities between Dylan and Lindenberg are a superior sense of rhyme and rhythm, respect for tradition, the infectious enjoyment of playing with language and the demonstrable influence on colleagues. A sublime example is “Sonderzug nach Pankow” from 1983, one of Udo’s biggest hits.

Entschuldigen Sie, ist das der Sonderzug nach Pankow?
Ich muss mal eben dahin, mal eben nach Ost-Berlin
Ich muss da was klären, mit eurem Oberindianer
Ich bin ein Jodeltalent, und ich will da spielen mit 'ner Band

Pardon me Sir, is this the Special Train to Pankow?
I have to get over there, over to East Berlin.
I gotta sort something out with your Chief Indian.
I'm a yodelling talent, and I wanna play there with a band.

… Lindenberg actually tried for years to be allowed to perform in East Germany, and this song really was an attempt to get permission from “the Chief Indian”; from Secretary General Erich Honecker. Tone and word choice, however, are absolutely melodious and funny, but not very diplomatic. “Ey Honni, I sing for little money,” for example, and further on Udo states that Honecker probably also secretly, in the toilet, listens to rock ‘n’ roll on West-radio.

The template is, obviously, Glenn Miller’s immortal “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (1941), the first gold record in music history. Lindenberg picks up the opening words (“Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?”) transforms the shoeshine boy into a stationmaster and then takes the lyrics his inimitable way. And the song starts, just like “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, with a train whistle blowin’.

It is one of the strongest and most popular images in a hundred years of song history: the train whistle blowin’. With the abolition of the steam whistle and the introduction of the air horn, it has actually become an archaic concept, but like dial a number or the floppy disk icon for “save”, it is firmly anchored in our cultural baggage. Even in the twenty-first century, artists such as Kid Rock (“Cowboy”), The Tragically Hip (“Are You Ready”) and Cake (“The Distance”) still sing with straight faces about lonesome whistles that they could have never heard themselves.

Dylan’s anchor points are easy to point out. There are dozens of records in his record cabinet on which a steam whistle is blowing anyway. “How Long Blues” by Dinah Washington, Conway Twitty ‘s “Mama Tried”, “Southbound Train” by Big Bill Broonzy, “On the Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe”, “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad”, “Won’t Be Long”, “500 Miles”… without steam whistles, Dylan’s record cabinet would be pretty empty. He’d even be missing his own first album:

I got the freight train blues
Oh Lord mama, I got them in the bottom of my rambling shoes
And when the whistle blows, I gotta go baby, don't you know
Well, it looks like I'm never gonna lose the freight train blues

… not to mention the song that was on his repertoire even before his first album, and which he performed on Cynthia Gooding’s radio show, March ’62:

I was riding number nine
Heading south from Caroline
I heard that lonesome whistle blow
Got in trouble had to roam
Left my gal and left my home
I heard that lonesome whistle blow

… Hank Williams’ “Lonesome Whistle Blues”, one of the heaviest anchors under Dylan’s entire oeuvre. And the other anchors are whistleblowers too. The second anchor is Harold Arlen’s “Blues In The Night”, the song of which more or less every line recurs in Dylan’s oeuvre.

“Blues In The Night”, like “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, was written in 1941, like “Chattanooga Choo Choo” for a movie, and both are nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1942. And both lost, inexplicably, to Jerome Kern’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris”. Incomprehensible, because that is a) a pretty mediocre song, and b) not even an Original Song (the song is five years old by then). Jerome Kern, who hadn’t even come to the awards ceremony, fully convinced that both “Blues In The Night” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” were far superior to his “The Last Time I Saw Paris”, felt so embarrassed that he personally made sure that the rules were tightened: from 1943, an Original Song must really be an Original Song, written especially for the film.

Too late for Arlen, of course. But still. “The Last Time I Saw Paris” was one of the few songs that year that did not involve the blowing of a steam whistle – perhaps that won over the Oscar jury. And “Blues In The Night” has reached its place of honour on the Olympus easily, even without that Oscar – not only because there are at least eight Dylan songs in which the song descends;

Now the rain's a-fallin'
Hear the train a-callin, "whoo-ee!"
My mama done tol' me
Hear that lonesome whistle blowin' 'cross the trestle, "whoo-ee!"
My mama done tol' me
A-whooee-ah-whooee ol' clickety-clack's
A-echoin' back th' blues in the night

… nine, if we include “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”.

And the third, and heaviest steam whistle blower in Dylan’s backpack is of course Johnny Cash. If only for Johnny’s alpha and omega song “Folsom Prison Blues”,

Well, if they freed me from this prison
If 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
And I'd let that lonesome whistle
Blow my blues away

… and because of that whole earth-shattering debut album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957) too, the album with “The Rock Island Line” and Hank Williams’ “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle” and “I Walk The Line” and “Doin’ My Time” and “The Wreck of the Old ’97”… the songs that make Dylan sigh in his autobiography Chronicles: “Ten thousand years of culture fell from him,” and

“The coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger. I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. Indeed. I must have recited those lines to myself a million times. Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small, unusually low pitched — dark and booming, and he had the right band to match him, the rippling rhythm and cadence of click-clack. Words that were the rule of law and backed by the power of God.”

… songs with words about prisoners with ball and chain, about John Henry, about Jesus and about tramps. And especially about trains. Lots of trains, all of them with lonesome whistles. As in “Train Of Love”, the song Dylan picks for his contribution to the wonderful tribute album Kindred Spirits (1999);

Der Udo eventually managed to take his Special Train to Pankow after all. Eight months after the release of “Sonderzug nach Pankow”, four years after his first request, Lindenberg is suddenly allowed to perform at the Palace of the Republic in East Berlin (25 October 1983). On condition that he does not perform “Sonderzug nach Pankow”. The GDR leadership keeps him on a leash with the promise of a tour in 1984, but this promise is (of course) withdrawn after the Pankow-less concert. Three years after the fall of the Wall, in 1992, Leipzig fans paint a train that does indeed travel to Berlin, bearing the inscription Sonderzug nach Pankow, and on 25 March 2015, thirty-two years after the release of “Sonderzug nach Pankow”, Lindenberg finally really does travel, by underground U-Bahn train, from West Berlin to the Far East, to Pankow. The Oberindianer, meanwhile, has long since become little more than an embarrassing memory from a bizarre past.

————–

To be continued. Next up: Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You part 5: Hits of sorts

Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:

 

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2 Responses to Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You (1969) part 4: The cadence of click-clack

  1. Larry fyffe says:

    The ghost of the riverboat captain also knows his fate:

    Oh, I thought heard that steamboat whistle a-blow
    Blowing like she never blowed before
    (Steamboat Man)

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    *And she blowed like she never blowed before
    (Steamboat Man)

    From a riverboat to a steam locomotive:

    Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing
    Blowing like she never blowed before
    (Duquesne Whistle)

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