Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues

By Aaron Galbraith (in the USA) and Tony Attwood (in the UK)

John Lair wrote this song for Red Foley, who recorded the song in 1934.

Lair is reputed to have written over 500 songs, as well as being a major player in promoting the music of Ohio and Kentucky.

He started collecting the music of his part of the United States in the 1930s and eventually became a music librarian, not least for his particular interest in relating the old songs to people’s way of life in earlier days, and the events that shapes the lives of individuals and communities.

The song was recorded by Roy Acuff in 1936 and 1947. Here  is the 1947 version

Tony: John Lair was also well known for his harmonica work, although it is not heard on the recording at the top of the page.  The effect of giving the feeling of the train moving along the tracks, which is very common in this type of music, works particularly well here.

And since I have done it before, I’m going to interject here with another freight train song – one that I heard along with Freight Train Blues, as a child.  Not, I hasten to add, that I was brought up in Ohio or Kentucky – I was actually raised in Tottenham, north London, but still I heard music from all over, somehow.

Anyway, back to the script…

Aaron:  Dylan later adapted it for his self-titled debut album (1962). The  sleeve notes indicate that it was “was adapted from an old disk by Roy Acuff”.  It  features Dylan’s longest recorded note—over 25 seconds.

Tony: OK, my chance to add a bit more now, and that is Roy Acuff’s original version.  This works in the UK, and I hope it is not blocked for copyright reasons in North America.  I think it is worth a listen as it does give a clear indication of the basis from which Bob worked in generating his performance on that first album.  The harmonica work in the instrumental break clearly leads onto Bob’s style of playing.

This recording was made in 1947.  If you have a moment do play it all the way, if for no reason other than to hear the harmonica break before the final verse.

Aaron: Here are two recent versions I like a lot.  First, The Local Honeys from 2015 album Little Girls Actin’ Like Men

Tony: What a hilarious title – “Little Girls, actin like men”.   I love self-deprication like this, and especially in this case, as the recording combines the various elements of the traditional versions without simply going for speed.  And the two voices in harmony for the chorus are absolutely perfect with the reference to the train’s whistle on “blues.”   Especially as the singer doesn’t just hold one note but descends starting on the flattened 7th.  It adds a feeling of the blues to a song that doesn’t really have too much blues in it.   Fabulous harmonies too.

Aaron: The Peasall Sisters from 2014 album Home to You

Tony: And this time a really amusing cover.  And what a sound with perfect harmonies and a racing accompaniment.  My goodness, that is pure vocal talent to be able to do vocals like that.  Just listen to what they do on “I got the freight train blues”.  Most artists would just treat those words as just given reference to the title of the song, but these ladies do something else.  I’m so glad you introduced me to this Aaron.

A great collection.  Thanks.

Previously in this series…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Freight Train Blues




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