That Lonesome Sound. Hank Williams in his song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, referred to it in one of the lines, “That midnight train is whining low.”
Bob Dylan came along later and wrote “Gotta Travel On” which Billy Grammer recorded and had a huge hit. Bob Dylan’s full lyrics were too long for the recording which in those days had to be only two minutes plus, so the DJ could come on and yak, and stuff in more commercials.
A three minute record was almost a sin preached upon by the station manager with a dire warning it would never be played when the distributor delivered the record to the radio station. Bob Dylan’s full lyrics could have easily gone five minutes on a record, which would have called for an instant memorial service on air, two minutes in length, and never the record played.
Though not in the recording by Billy Grammer, they were in Bob Dylan lyrics. “There’s a lonesome freight at 6:08 coming through the town.
I’m not sure where Bob Dylan got his inspiration for that, but I do think I know where Hank Williams did.
When I was in high school in Birmingham, at night about 10:30, a freight, possibly passenger train, passed close to our house in silence, but down line at a crossing, probably two miles away, the engineer blew that woeful, lonely steam engine whistle. What a shivering stand-along sound, totally overshadowing the purring and effect of the air-conditioning window units doing their best to keep up with the penetrating, stifling heat seeping through the seal around the windows.. No central air at that time.
In the beginning the engineer must have been practicing, but later he perfected it. A train engineer with a bent for music. That was the most piercing sound I think I ever heard. The train was out there searching for what I know not, and never found it.
The train was bound west at that point, but I’m certain it had to turn south and head straight through Montgomery where Hank probably listened to it at night, the middle of the night, when, if he had any alcoholic demons then, came out in their full regalia. But whatever his state of mind, the moaning train whistle certainly was fully capable of capturing the line “That midnight train is whining low.”
That sound had to overpower anything in its path, and I mean anything. A sobering effect for any mind, even if the mind was already sober, it put the fear in a person that they hoped they would never be that lonely.
I wondered later if Arlo Guthrie’s’ recording of the train classic “City of New Orleans”, which was written by Steve Goodman, might have been influenced by that train whistle, after stopping for additional passengers or freight in Montgomery, and pulling out down line for New Orleans. If Steve ever heard the groaning of the train whistle, I don’t think he could ever forget it. Apparently he actually rode, not that train, but the Illinois Central Railroad, which is referred to in the song, and any train whistle would probably have been from that train. There is a loneliness in “City of New Orleans” that came from somewhere. Maybe the engineer I referred to taught the engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad how to blow the whistle.
By that time the engineer of the Birmingham-Montgomery-New Orleans train had probably retired and retired his talent as well. Or maybe his son took that same run, and his father attempted to pass along his talent to that son.
Today there is a train about that time, but my distance from it is greater than in those days. A diesel train, and not a steam engine. A sound, but no wailing sound. Modern technology does leave some things to be desired.
I never did care much for Hank, Sr.’s singing. He was one terrific songwriter. It’s nice to think a train’s loneliness I heard might have been the one Hank Sr. heard.
I do wish that train could have found what it was looking for. But then again if you are remembered in a Hank Williams Sr. song, maybe that’s enough.