Who doesn’t love a train song? I originally chose April 8 for this one, the day Papa Harvey Hull and Cleve Reed are said to have recorded it in 1927. But the many versions, very different in tone and lyric, suggest that it is traditional American, or at least that it’s some sort of folk concatenation, possibly from black singers. There are several modernized, popular examples, but I learned the song from a fellow called Mark Comstock. Mark is now a Californian, but in 1974 he hosted an open stage at the Pizza Patio on Bloor and Bedford in Toronto.
The Patio was just up the street from the St. George Graduate Residence, where I lived during my ambivalent studies at the University of Toronto. We had no “gap years” back then, and as I was bored stupid with Wordsworth and Georg Lukacs in stuffy classrooms, I spent almost every night at the Patio when I should have been in the library, or at least my professors would have said so. The Graduate English Department provided me a life-changing opportunity to study with Northrop Frye, and, coincidentally, to meet my future wife. Mark and the Patio matured me musically, but more than that, they provided me, on the brink of genuine adulthood, … well, they provided me comfort and joy – and the visceral realization that I’d had enough of the academy for the time being. I wanted to play more music, but also get a job and act like a grown-up.
Which is why I’ve assigned September 1 to “The Mobile Line.” Shortly after I arrived in Canada on that day in 1973, I noticed a sign on the Patio’s front window about their “back room open stage.” The host at the time was a bearded Englishman, stocky, beaming, and allegedly a sailor. On his somewhat desperate invitation, a band I’d formed with some friends at “the grad rez” – my roommate David Williams (now a professor of biochemistry, still a close friend) and Alice Home – played on the little stage there. When the sailor asked what we were called, I improvised, based on my W.B. Yeats infatuation of the day, and said, “Red Hanrahan.”
I think we probably performed “The Chastity Belt,” a bawdy song Alice had taught us, having learned it herself in Australia. Alice was markedly not bawdy otherwise, but perhaps that’s the way with singers of bawdy ballads. The song had various parts – a gentle maiden, her fiercely protective father, a thrusting knight, a page boy who had a “duplicate key” – so we vamped on those. David, particularly (“Dave” in the day; but fair dues, I was “Jeff”), is a bit of a showman, though he would deny it, I imagine. Probably we also sang Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon” and the Child ballad, “The Cruel Sister,” which I had got from The Pentangle. Alice and David were pretty steady; I likely was shaky on guitar, banjo, limberjack, and vocals.
On that occasion, and when we played the back room a couple of times with Mark as host, we might actually have ordered a pizza. Most nights I ordered nothing, or maybe a Diet Coke. I was an impecunious scholar there for the music. Je m’excuse, Sylvie – I think that was the name of the long-suffering waitress in the back there, a young woman who was also starving, judging not from her curvaceous form (visible enough in the unrelenting finster) but from the poor attendance at the open stages and the penury of us neighbourhood students. The back room did better on the weekends, and when Mark invited special guests, who dragooned their friends. But I learned a whole passel of tunes from Mark precisely because, most nights, I could sit hard by the stage to watch and hear what he did again and again, chat with him, and even get him to write up lyrics for me.
Which is to say that the beaming sailor didn’t last long. But that, of course, is how I met Mark.
The chart: Mark played this song in standard tuning and made no mention of the trip to France or the disposal of the narrator’s remains (pickled in booze) in my arrangement (see to the right). I was thrilled to track him down lately, and he tells me that his version combines those of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and a truly weird, free-association stoner thing (the only word for it) by the Holy Modal Rounders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V81o8ahl7dI). (Coincidentally, a strong characteristic of Mark’s stage presence in those days was snuffling. Whether this was due to allergies or some other stimulus, I couldn’t say.) I believe he used the “Hey lonny mama” refrain instead of the “Hey lordy…,” and I don’t recall an instrumental break. He sped the tune up and down to mimic the train journey and simulated air brakes with his mouth, but avoided the childish “choo-choo!” temptation. I don’t. My version of Mark’s version of the Kweskin/Rounders versions is fused with sundry other versions, original and rebuilt, in true folk tradition, and is in drop D tuning, which allows me some funky fills and slides. I’ve adapted Mark’s chugalug lick, a hammer-on from the major second to the major third of the chord: I hammer from the minor third to the major – Bb to B (for instance) on the tonic chord (G), and to emphasize the hypnotic movement I throw in the occasional suspended fourth. To hear a rough-and-tumble recording, and read the lyrics for my version of this song, please visit my website.
Today we would call Mark’s taste eclectic roots – from Willie McTell to John Sebastian to Lieber and Stoller to the Stones to Uncle Dave Macon and the Stanley Brothers to Leadbelly … . He had a real performer’s feel for grassroots soulful and funky – the tragicomedy and absurdity of everyday life. His influence will crop up again in this blog.